Hungary prepares mixed welcome for Americans

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"Hoooooahh!!" proclaims the welcome message pinned to the notice board at the entrance to the Taszar airbase in southern Hungary. The Americans are coming. In the next few months, thousands of US troops are expected to flood through Taszar on the way to Bosnia as part of the planned 60,000- strong Nato peace force.

The deployment in Hungary will be the first of such a Nato force in a former Warsaw Pact country. US forces will also be using a military base in the nearby town of Kaposvar. Under the peace accord the Nato deployment should last for a year, but many predict it could be longer.

The 2,000 people of the village of Taszar see the arrival of the Americans as a mixed blessing. Traders are licking their lips. "This should give a much-needed boost to the local economy," said Zoltan Tapaszti, a shopkeeper who is already stocking up with Marlboros and Jim Beam whisky.

But some mothers are already locking up their daughters. "I and other teenagers are looking forward to it," said Tibor Molnar. "But our parents are worried. They think that the arrival of the GIs will spell the arrival of cocaine, Aids, street brawls and Russian prostitutes. There is a lot of fear, especially among women and mothers."

The last time Hungary played host to foreign troops on what was always called a "temporary" basis, they stayed more than 40 years. Several Soviet bases near Taszar were closed only in 1991.

The Hungarian government, however, has embraced the American involvement, seeing it as a stepping-stone towards membership of Nato. A parliamentary vote last month on whether to allow the deployment was passed by 312 to 1.

"We are very pleased to offer our facilities to the US forces and obviously hope that it will serve our cause," said Gabor Szentivanyi, a foreign ministry spokesman. "Of course we have already staged Nato exercises here under the Partnership for Peace programme, but they were only exercises. This time it will be for real."

The camps at Taszar and Kaposvar will be staging posts for some 20,000 US troops expected to be sent from Germany to Bosnia. Some 2,500 logistics and communications specialists will be based there.

An advance party of 25 logistics specialists has started preparing the ground for the expected onslaught. "It's cool," said Captain Steve Shapiro, asked how it felt to be operating from a former Warsaw Pact country. His colleague at the Taszar base, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Anderson, said: "We have been very well looked after by our Hungarian hosts. The Hungarian military is every bit as professional as any I have ever dealt with in Nato. To tell you the truth, when I first got here I did not even notice the difference."

n Berne - Switzerland agreed yesterday to grant passage to Nato troops and materiel bound for Bosnia, the first time the neutral republic has allowed alliance forces through its territory. The cabinet said it would permit supply flights and land transports on a case-by-case basis.