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Germany planning to pull out of Bosnia

BERLIN -- Less than a week after he urged the German Army to play a more active role in resolving regional conflicts and fighting terrorism, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Germany would begin as early as December to withdraw troops from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former republic of Yugoslavia that was ravaged by civil war from 1992 to 1995.

It is the first time Jung has publicly raised the idea of pulling out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where an international force has kept peace for almost 11 years. Germany has 850 military personnel in the 6,200-member force, which the European Union has commanded since late 2004.

Jung said his decision to withdraw the troops was linked to the growing number of international peacekeeping missions in which German soldiers are involved.

But Balkan analysts said Jung's announcement, made on ZDF public television late Sunday and repeated yesterday, was ill timed for a traditionally volatile region sliding toward fresh instability.

"The announcement by the German defense minister sends all the wrong signals," said Ivan Vejvoda, executive director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. "Of course countries want to downsize, but it is far too early to take our eye off the ball in the Balkans. The international community has to be extremely careful in how it continues to deal with the region, especially Kosovo."

Over the weekend, voters in Serbia ratcheted up tensions over Kosovo, the Serbian province dominated by ethnic Albanians, by approving a constitution that reasserts that the region is an indelible part of Serbia. United Nations officials, who have run Kosovo since NATO went to war over it in 1999, will face the challenge of balancing that against strong Albanian demands for independence by year's end.

"We will want to discuss in December how the exit strategy -- that is, the withdrawal -- should look," Jung said of the German presence in Bosnia. "Our vision is that we will take the first concrete step in December."

Germany has nearly 9,000 forces involved in international peacekeeping missions. These include 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, 2,844 in Kosovo, and 750 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Last month, it agreed to send more than 1,000 marines to Lebanon as part of a more robust UN international peacekeeping force there.

"In some areas, we have already hit the limit," Jung said.

The German Army of 245,000 appears to be overstretched although only a small number of troops are deployed with NATO, the European Union, or the United Nations.

Dusan Reljic, a Balkan specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said it was too early to speak of withdrawal from Bosnia.

"Once you are in the military mission, you take possession of the political process. You can't walk out when you feel like it," Reljic said.

During presidential elections this month, voters elected Bosnia's wartime foreign minister, Haris Silajdzic, as the Muslim member of the three-member presidency. Silajdzic has already upset Western diplomats, and particularly the Croat and Serb communities, by threatening to dismantle the Bosnian-Croat federation, a delicately ethnically balanced structure established by the 1995 Dayton accords, which brought an end to the Bosnian war.

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