WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon ordered a 20-member team of U.S. military communications experts to Croatia from bases in Western Europe yesterday to run a NATO communications network in case of an evacuation of United Nations forces.
All but essential members of the U.S. Embassy staff were being evacuated from the Croatian capital, Zagreb, after Serbian forces shelled the city with artillery and rockets.
But Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said that it was "premature" to talk of the withdrawal of U.N. forces, including 15,000 troops in Croatia and another 23,000 in Bosnia. A decision to withdraw would have to be agreed upon by the United Nations, NATO and the 26 countries contributing troops.
"Our hope is that [U.N.] forces will be able to stay in that area," he said. But he noted that planning for withdrawing the troops had been under way since last year.
The Clinton administration has agreed to dispatch U.S. troops to the former Yugoslavia to assist in a U.N. withdrawal. But the White House favors a continued U.N. presence, in hopes of limiting the fighting and ensuring delivery of humanitarian aid.
The U.S. communications experts -- a half-dozen of whom were en route to Croatia yesterday, with the rest expected within days -- will join about 350 U.S. military personnel working in support and humanitarian roles throughout the former Yugoslavia.
The U.S. military personnel include 136 doctors and medics attached to an Air Force hospital in Zagreb. Most of the rest are liaison officers working with NATO, the United Nations and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
The United States also has stationed about 500 troops in neighboring Macedonia, in hopes of preventing the fighting from spreading eastward from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia.