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NATO Stresses Nation-Building in Talks with Bosnian Leaders - 2002-03-13

NATO is urging leaders from Bosnia's three main ethnic groups to work more closely together, begin centralizing institutions, and end the country's dependence on the outside world. NATO ambassadors met with Bosnia's three-man presidency, the first time that all three members of Bosnia's collective presidency visited alliance headquarters.

What the three men - representing the country's Croat, Muslim, and Serb communities - heard was a message that it is time for them to start building a central government and a national army.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson says the ambassadors from the 19 members of the alliance made clear the Bosnian leaders must move toward ending what he called the country's culture of dependence.

"The clear message was that Bosnia-Herzegovina had to take ownership of its own future ... to break the cycle of dependence ... and to let the country take its place in the European family of nations," said Mr. Robertson.

He said the NATO ambassadors focused on the need for Bosnia to bring its armed forces under a central command and urged the three leaders to collaborate more closely with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Bosnia is currently divided into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic, each with their own presidents, parliaments, and governments. But the two are linked through such institutions as the three-man multi-ethnic presidency. Like nearby Kosovo, Bosnia is virtually a ward of the international community.

NATO will decide within weeks whether to scale down its 19,000-man peacekeeping force in Bosnia. The United States is especially anxious to reduce its contribution to the force, and one top NATO official says he expects total troop numbers there to be cut by several thousand.

The chairman of the joint presidency, Muslim Beriz Belkic, says he and his colleagues are ready to assume their responsibilities and build stronger central institutions.

His Serb colleague, Zivko Radisic, says he is in favor of recent NATO efforts to catch fugitive war crimes suspect and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and turn him over to the Hague tribunal. But Mr. Radisic urged NATO forces to avoid civilian casualties when conducting such operations.

As the three Bosnian presidents were meeting with the NATO ambassadors, NATO forces in Bosnia were air-dropping leaflets in the area where Mr. Karadzic is believed to be hiding. The leaflets remind the strongly pro-Karadzic local populace that there is a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.