WASHINGTON -- President Bush will visit American troops in Somalia on New Year's Eve to demonstrate U.S. commitment to humanitarian assistance to that war-torn African nation, the White House announced Tuesday.
Bush will leave the United States on Dec. 30 and arrive in the East African nation on New Year's Eve to spend the holiday with thousands of American service personnel now involved in Operation Restore Hope, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
On Jan. 1, Fitzwater said the president plans to visit relief operations in Somalia and is scheduled to leave that evening.
'The president's visit will demonstrate United States concern for the people of Somalia, our commitment to humanitarian assistance, and our support for Americans and United Nations forces,' Fitzwater said.
Bush dispatched American troops to Somalia on Dec. 4 with a build-up expected to 20,000 troops.
Bush's visit to Somalia in the waning days of his presidency has been urged by some of his top aides.
He made a similar visit to Saudi Arabia to visit the troops during Thanksgiving Day in 1990 as a prelude to Operation Desert Storm, the U. S.-led coalition against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait.
Bush planned to spend Christmas with his family at Camp David. He also was expected to take a brief quail hunting trip to Texas before his journey to Africa.
The president had expected to spend his final days in the White House wrapping up his affairs, but international crises have intervened.
Earlier in the day, Bush met with the foreign ministers of four Central European countries who urged him to take the lead in tougher military action against Belgrade to halt the slaughter in Bosnia- Hercegovina.
Once on the ground in Somalia, Bush will be able to view the massive relief operation now under way, in which American and French troops are securing food routes into some of the areas of the country most devastated by starvation.
Troops participating in Operation Restore Hope already have secured most of the large towns in the famine-riddled southern region of Somalia and are moving westward toward the Ethiopian border.
The announcement of Bush's visit came after U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that a hasty withdrawal by U.S.-led forces from Somalia would turn that country back into anarchy and starvation and make it more difficult for the United Nations to begin a peace process.
The Bush administration has said it would like to at least begin the withdrawal of the bulk of the American forces by the time Bush leaves office, Jan. 20.
The U.N. Security Council voted two weeks ago to authorize the use of military force to deliver food supplies to tens of thousands of starving Somalis.
The first of the U.S. troops landed on Mogadishu on Dec. 9. They were joined later by French Legionnaires to begin securing the capital's port and airport.
The U.S.-led force was sent to Somalia to secure an environment which would allow the distribution of food to areas most severely hit by starvation.
The Security Council has envisioned a plan to replace that force with U.N. peacekeepers. But the lightly armed U.N. troops are no match to the armed Somali clans unless they are disarmed by the unified command, a task the United States has refused to do.
Fitzwater said that Bush planned to leave from Washington after his previously scheduled vacation hunting trip to Beeville, Texas.
The flight to Mogadishu would entail 25 hours, including an eight hour time change.
Bush, who will be accompanied by his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft and his spokesman, Fitzwater, will spend only one night in Mogadishu, most likely on board an American warship now offshore. He will spend most of Jan. 1 touring various relief centers and troop staging areas set up for the massive operation.
Fitzwater also said that though Bush is expected to end his trip to the African nation late in the day Jan. 1, he could not rule out the possibility the president would make another stop en route back to the United States.
But the spokesman declined to say if any preparations were under way between the United States and Russia to set up a signing ceremony for the START II treaty, as Russian President Boris Yeltsin said last week was going to take place in Anchorage, Alaska, on Jan. 4.
'I'm not ruling anything out,' Fitzwater said.
On Sunday, Bush said he spoke to Yeltsin by telephone and reported that though no final agreement had been reached between the superpowers on such a treaty to cut American and Russian nuclear stockpiles, progress had been made.
Fitzwater has said Bush wanted to sign the sweeping follow-up treaty before leaving office.