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Stay In Bosnia Likely To Be Extended Adviser Paves Way For Longer Peacekeeping Mission, But Clinton Decision Still Pending

President Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said Tuesday that the United States and its European allies must be prepared for an extended stay in Bosnia beyond the scheduled withdrawal of NATO forces next June.

“We must not forget the important interests that led us to work for a more stable, more peaceful Bosnia,” Berger told an audience at Georgetown University. “Peace is beginning to take root. The gains are not irreversible, and locking them in will require that the international community stay engaged in Bosnia in some fashion for a good while to come.”

Responding to uneasiness among European allies and growing concern in Congress, Berger said the West must remain “engaged” in Bosnia to preserve peace in southeastern Europe and the credibility of the NATO alliance.

His speech echoed arguments Clinton made last year to support deployment of 8,000 U.S. soldiers.

Berger did not explicitly declare that the administration has abandoned its plan to withdraw American troops from Bosnia by June. But administration officials said the speech was intended to counter congressional Republicans who want to cut off spending for any future military presence and to calm the fears of Britain, Germany and other allies who have told Washington they do not want to station troops in Bosnia without a continued American military commitment.

Congressional Democrats who had been consulted by Berger as he prepared his speech in the last two weeks said his careful wording reflects the fact that the administration has not decided how many troops it is willing to commit to Bosnia.

Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, they said, are pressing Clinton to continue a military presence in Bosnia. But the Democrats said the president has not made a decision.

Clinton originally sent 20,000 American troops to Bosnia as part of a 60,000-member NATO force two years ago to uphold an American-brokered peace settlement worked out in Dayton, Ohio, by Muslims, Croats and Serbs. The troops enforced a cease-fire but did little to arrest war criminals or help refugees return to their homes.

In the months before the 1996 presidential election, Clinton and his aides refused to commit themselves to a renewed American presence in Bosnia. But soon after the election, the administration announced that about 5,000 American troops would join a new NATO-led force in Bosnia.

This new force recently has become more aggressive in enforcing the Dayton accords, escorting refugees and seizing a few suspects indicted on war crimes charges. While those actions have won some applause, Congress has voiced increasing concern that the NATO troops will be drawn into full-scale combat.

During most of last year, the administration set a firm deadline of December 1996 for a complete American military pullout. But only days after the election, it announced plans for the new peacekeeping force with a reduced presence from NATO and the United States.

Defense Secretary William Cohen, who has been a skeptic of the American military presence in Bosnia since his days in the Senate, said on March 4, “It’s very clear that June 1998, we’ll be on our way out.”

But three months later, Clinton sidestepped questions about what he would do after the June deadline, saying, “I believe the current operation will have run its course by then, and we’ll have to discuss what, if any, involvement the United States should have there.”