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Secretary Cohen's Press Conference at the U.S. Embassy Sarajevo

Presenter: U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
September 27, 1998

Secretary Cohen: When I last visited Sarajevo in 1996 I was struck by three things: The lack of windows, the omnipresence of graves and sniper alley. Today, hope has replaced fear, and life has replaced death and building is now replacing destruction. This is a great credit to the men and women of SFOR -- the troops of some 34 different countries -- who have brought security to Bosnia.

It is also a credit to the internationals that are working side by side with SFOR to rebuild the country. And it is a credit to the people of Bosnia, who have chosen peace over war. They are also choosing democracy. The recent elections were free and fair. Voters went to the polls with almost no security incidents. It was hard work by the OSCE and the Bosnian people and the election officials who made this possible. Let me say that the United States is prepared to work with all the newly elected officials, as long as they support the Dayton accords and do so not only with their words but also by their deeds.

I would also like to take note of the successful deployment of the first battalion of the Multinational Specialized Unit, an Italian-led force which is trained to deal with incidents of civil disorder. This is one example of our efforts to move beyond military stabilization to civilian, civil rehabilitation. As we prepare to complete NATO's six-month review in December, we will be looking for other ways to substitute civilian institutions for military force.

Sarajevo presents and represents both the progress and the problems of the Dayton peace process. It shows that life can regenerate when killing stops. There is, for example, a resurgence of economic energy and cultural creativity. But Sarajevo is not the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic city it once ways --not yet. We need more progress on refugee return and reconciliation.

So the challenge now is to accelerate civil implementation. SFOR, OHR, the other multinational institutions, they are working together to do their part. But the parties must do more to cooperate on minority returns, to end corruption to build a multi-ethnic police force, to provide security to all Bosnians.

SFOR and the other institutions have sown the seeds of peace and prosperity in Bosnia and now those seeds must be cultivated and harvested by the Bosnians themselves.

I'll be happy to entertain your questions.

Q: What will the NATO countries do concerning Albanian civilians besieged now by Serbian forces in Kosovo? A: NATO, as you know, is in the process of finalizing its plans to prepare for an air operation, different types of operations, in order to bring about a resolution of the situation in Kosovo. The Security Council has issued a set of demands. We hope that Mr. Milosevic will meet those demands. Failure to do so presents the possibility that a military operation against Mr. Milosevic will be necessary. The Security Council has not yet issued an ultimatum but a set of demands, giving Mr. Milosevic an opportunity to respond to them in a very short period of time. So we are hopeful that he will respond positively. A failure to do so on his part will be met with very strong NATO action, in my judgement. Time is running very short. The cold months are coming. It is imperative that the people be allowed to come down from the hills and be resettled, returned to their homes.

Q: Is there a deadline? A: There is no specific deadline that has been set, but I can tell you from the conference that I came from in Portugal, there was a consensus that time was very short and there should be reaction by Mr. Milosevic soon.

Q: What are the (unintelligible) for a Dayton agreement for Kosovo? A: There is no Dayton-like plan proposed at this point. The most immediate problem is to get a cessation of the hostilities, to get Mr. Milosevic to pull his forces back, to allow the humanitarian groups, the NGOs, to provide humanitarian relief and to get the displaced persons to be returned to their homes and to provide for Mr. Milosevic and the UCK and others to sit down at the negotiation table and resolve it peacefully. There has been no Dayton-like plan put together at this point.

Q: Secretary Cohen, does NATO have contingency plans for a cease fire enforcement force, a ground force such as the one for SFOR in the event that there is a cease fire? Would the United States participate in such a force, a ground force, in Kosovo?

A: I think it's premature to plan, or rather to establish contingency plans for any ground operations or presence. At this point the plans have been to put together detailed operational plans for air operations against Mr. Milosevic in order to bring about a cessation of hostilities if he's not willing to do so voluntarily.

Q: Given the election results do you believe that there is now a possibility that SFOR will be reduced in force?

A: There should be no reduction of the forces who are here as part of SFOR. Certainly not before there is a review, to be conducted in December. I would suggest that we wait until that review is conducted to see exactly where we are on the benchmarks and then make a determination as to whether or not there can be a gradual reduction of forces. As you know, we, the United States, will be reducing the size of its force to roughly 6,900 by mid-November, early December. We hope that the forces will remain roughly where they are at that point by all parties. We think that there is some room for optimism given the fact that a number of moderates were elected. There was an increase in those numbers. There has been at least a rhetorical commitment to Dayton by Mrs. Plavsic's opponent -- the winner of the elections. We have to wait and see whether he will match those rhetorical promises with actual commitment.

Q: Do you see any danger of a negative impact, or to put it another way, any danger that if you have a NATO operation in Kosovo it will have a negative impact on Bosnia? I'm thinking particularly of an influx of refugees and also stirring up a new wave of Serb nationalism in the Republika Srpska.

A: I suppose there's always a risk of stirring nationalist feelings by NATO taking action. But I would argue to the contrary that a failure on the part of NATO to take action, to allow Mr. Milosevic to continue doing what he has been doing could very well spread and seek to undermine the great progress that has been made here in Bosnia. I have heard at least some members of Congress suggest that because there has been conflict in Kosovo, that means Bosnia has been a failure. To the contrary, Bosnia has been successful and we want to see the kind of success that has been brought here to continue. In essence I would say failure for NATO to take action to restrain the kinds of excesses that we have seen on the part of Mr. Milosevic might very well result in strengthening the so-called sentiments undermining the effort that's been made to build a multi-ethnic society here and elsewhere.

Q: When you were a member of Congress, you were reluctant to commit U.S. forces on the ground for an indefinite period of time. How, if at all, has your thinking evolved and what are your lessons learned about peacekeeping?

A: The difference is that I have had the opportunity to see the tremendous progress that has taken place here in Bosnia and as a result of that progress, to see the way in which international organizations can work together with international military forces to bring about stability and allow the seeds of peace to take root. I have been encouraged by that and see the need for that to continue. As I have indicated before, not for any specific definite timeframe, because you set unrealistic goals and then there is disappointment that they're not achieved.

But I believe that based upon the progress that we've made to date that we can take a good deal of pride in what's been achieved and continue in that effort for some time. That is the reason why the benchmarks have been set and why this six-month review process will be important. Because all of the countries who are contributing to SFOR, the United States included, look forward to the time when they can reduce their presence and turn much of the responsibility over to civil institutions. So the benchmarks are important.

That they are meeting those benchmarks will be measured periodically and I think that is a good test for the NATO members who are now participating in SFOR and for the respective parliaments.

The final thing I would say is, it's important for progress to continue to be made and that one cannot afford to see any lessening of the effort, any reduction on the part of the civil implementation of the Dayton accords, or else there will be a tendency to allow things to slacken off and lose both the commitment and support of the respective countries who are contributing to SFOR. So, the emphasis has be to move forward and to support those who are supporting Dayton. Thank you.

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