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Bosnia: Senate Panel Questions U.S. Policy

Washington, 5 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An influential member of the U.S. Senate says he has serious reservations about what appears to be an open-ended commitment to maintain American troops in Bosnia.

Senator Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday he has doubts about President Bill Clinton's decision in March to extend the presence of U.S. forces in Bosnia beyond the end of this month for an indefinite period.

Thurmond (R-South Carolina) said that while the Senate committee, in his words "remains supportive of U.S. forces" stationed in the Balkans, he wants more consultation between Congress and the Clinton Administration on matters of defense.

He and other senators on the panel asked the chief witness -- top U.S. negotiator for the Balkans Robert Gelbard -- to explain when U.S. troops might be withdrawn from the war-torn area.

Gelbard said under the Dayton peace accords a lot of progress has been made in Bosnia but he stressed the situation is still "fragile."

He said the "next big goal" is to have successful national elections in September and further improvement of the economic situation for the Bosnian people.

Gelbard told the committee that if things work well, the U.S. could further reduce its troops after the Bosnian elections.

The U.S. Defense Department says there are 8,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia as part of a larger NATO-led peacekeeping effort. That number is to be cut by about 1,000 later this summer.

Thurmond said he is concerned the Bosnia operation is costing too much and draining the U.S. defense budget.

He said: "As our defense budget continues to shrink and force levels decline, we must be more careful about the commitments we make, ensuring that we commit our own forces to achieve objectives that directly support out vital national and security interests."

Earlier this week, a Senate spending panel approved a U.S. military budget, specifying that funds for Bosnia would be considered separately and were not part of that expenditure.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said, however, he expects the 1,900 million dollars requested by Clinton for Bosnia would be eventually approved.

Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said at the hearing Thursday he believes legislators will be faced with several choices on Bosnia when the defense spending bill comes before the full Senate later this month.

One choice, Levin said, would be an amendment that would mandate a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Bosnia.

Another alternative, the senator said, would be an amendment stipulating that no funds could be spent to maintain U.S. ground combat forces in Bosnia after a specific date -- unless Congress authorizes the operation.

A third choice, Levin said, is a measure he plans to introduce that would authorize continued U.S. troop participation in Bosnia through 1999, if the situation requires.

Turning to Kosovo, Gelbard told the senators the U.S. and its allies cannot permit the situation to "unravel further."

Gelbard said the U.S. and its partners are prepared to look at additional economic sanctions against Belgrade unless it undertakes a meaningful dialogue with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership. He said the U.S. will "not accept a sham dialogue."

At the White House, spokesman Michael McCurry said the U.S. is very disturbed by the increase in violence in Kosovo. He said the entire NATO alliance shares this concern and is taking steps to deal with the situation.

But at the hearing, Gelbard said he is aware of "no active consideration of military action" on the part of NATO to intervene in the troubled Kosovo province.