Clinton visits Sarajevo to underline US commitment


President Clinton left for Bosnia yesterday on a Christmas-time mission to underscore his appreciation for the US troops in the region and highlight the need for an indefinite American commitment.

Mr Clinton's holiday visit comes only days after he announced it was a "mistake" to set a specific timetable for withdrawal of US forces from Bosnia and that he and his NATO partners are drafting plans for a long-term stay.

"The president came to the conclusion, and one that I share, that we should stay until the seeds of peace have taken much deeper root and can become self-sustaining," the Defence Secretary, Mr William Cohen, said on CBS's Face the Nation.

In an attempt to silence Republican critics of his decision to scrap plans for a US withdrawal by next June, Mr Clinton will be joined on his journey by Mr Bob Dole - the former Senate Republican leader who unsuccessfully challenged the Democratic president in last year's election.

The one-day visit begins today in Sarajevo. Mr Clinton will meet privately the three-man presidency that has been established to ensure the representation of the key factions - Mr Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, Mr Kresimir Zubak, a Croat, and Mr Momcilo Krajisnik, a Serb.

After delivering an address to the people of Sarajevo at the National Theatre, Mr Clinton will fly to Tuzla where he will visit with some of the 8,500 US troops in Bosnia. He is scheduled to return to Washington early tomorrow.

The White House Press Secretary, Mr Mike McCurry, said that "this will be a symbolic visit not only to those troops in Bosnia, but a representative salute to all the 106,000 American men and women who are serving far from home during this holiday season".

He said the visit gave Mr Clinton a chance "to get his own personal assessment from his commanders on the ground and from other representatives of NATO nations their sense of the tasks that lie ahead".

Mr Clinton has been criticised in the past for failing to meet previous deadlines for withdrawing troops from Bosnia. He now says he will not set a deadline for a withdrawal - opting instead for a set of "concrete benchmarks" to measure whether enough progress had been achieved to warrant an end to the NATO presence.

Mr Clinton has attached a number of conditions to continued US participation. He said the United States must retain command of the NATO force, that it be sufficient in size to defend itself and achieve its mission, and that European allies must take on a greater share of the cost.

European leaders put heavy pressure on Mr Clinton to maintain the US presence, saying the entire 33,000-strong international peacekeeping force could collapse if the Americans leave.

A relatively large entourage travelled with Mr Clinton, including: the First Lady, Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton; Mr Dole's wife, Elizabeth, who is head of the American Red Cross; and nearly a dozen members of Congress.

Bono, the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and famous friends from the entertainment industry opened a musical centre yesterday in the divided town of Mostar to reunite children from Bosnia's three ethnic groups. Bono, Pavarotti, Brian Eno and other stars arrived in late afternoon to a warm welcome by dozens of children who had waited patiently for hours after the opening ceremony was delayed due to heavy rain.

Voices of children and music from the packed Musala neighbourhood echoed through the war-ravaged town as Pavarotti and friends walked past the shattered Ottoman bridge to the musical centre named after the opera singer. "In 1995 we were looking for something to do for the benefit of kids. Today here we are where a dream is coming true," Pavarotti said after he unveiled the plaque on the musical centre.