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Western Press Review: Kosovo -- NATO Bombings Appear Imminent

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 24 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With NATO air strikes in Serbia possibly to begin within hours, Western press commentary today focuses largely on the implications of the Alliance's decision to act. Editorialists and analysts assess the bombing's possible consequences for Kosovo, for Serbia, for the U.S. and, not least, for NATO itself.

NEW YORK TIMES: The purpose for airstrikes is to limit Milosevic's ability to attack the people of Kosovo

The New York Times seeks to explain what it calls "the rationale for airstrikes." The paper's editorial says: "The purpose is to limit [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's ability to attack the people of Kosovo, and get him to sign the peace plan [agreed on earlier this month in Rambouillet, France] that would be safeguarded by NATO peacekeeping troops. There is also," writes the paper, a particular U.S. "interest in keeping war from spreading, possibly to the NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moreover, carrying out a threat that the West has been making since October is necessary to deter others who would kill innocents in the future."

The editorial adds another reason for the strikes: "Since Kosovo's ethnic Albanians did sign the peace plan, and the West has pulled its observers from Kosovo, it would be an act of betrayal to allow Milosevic to massacre the Kosovars. Serbian forces are shelling and burning villages, forcing tens of thousands to flee. They have also been killing ethnic Albanian civilians. Macedonia, unconscionably, has closed its border with Kosovo, leaving thousands of refugees to the mercy of Serbian forces."

The paper acknowledges that the bombing involves risks: "The Yugoslav armed forces that NATO planes would attack are tough and well equipped, with a sophisticated air defense system," its editorial says. "Thus the air war is likely to be more dangerous for Western pilots than the bombing campaign in Bosnia four years ago or the flights over Iraq that continue today. There is some risk that the bombing campaign will lead the Serbs to retaliate against ethnic Albanians with even greater ferocity. But that is a risk the Albanians are willing to take in hopes that bombing will contain the Serbian assault."

BILD: Not all of Europe is about to plunge into a continent-wide war

In Germany, the mass-circulation daily Bild devotes half of its front page to the headline: "Russia against NATO?" The question mark, the paper explains, is to reassure readers that all of Europe is not about to plunge into a continent-wide war. Other newspapers carry similarly striking, but somewhat more sober, front-page headlines --such as the Berlin Tagesspiegel's: "U.S. mediator Richard] Holbrooke's mission fails: [Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder says NATO strike now inevitable."

SUEDWEST PRESSE: Milosevic is begging for war

German editorials assess NATO's air-strike strategy cautiously and, in some cases, critically. But for most commentators, Milosevic is the villain of the piece. The Suedwest Presse, for example, says the Yugoslav President "is just begging for a war, and has provoked NATO beyond its tolerance limit." That's because, the paper goes on, "Milosevic is convinced NATO is a paper tiger, a tiger who can angrily raise a paw, but, if it came to it, would probably lack bite."

ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: How well has NATO thought through its plan of action?

The Allgemeine Zeitung expresses some misgivings about air strikes. It agrees that "NATO must act, if only to safeguard its credibility." But the paper wonders "how well the Atlantic Alliance has thought through its plan of action". It questions whether "NATO has considered what it has to do after its first air strike," and concludes, somewhat glumly, that, "whether it has or hasn't considered this, to do so now is almost too late."

SCHWAEBISCHE ZEITUNG: How deep will the unity among the NATO allies be?

The Schwaebische Zeitung shares these concerns, underlining that "questions about what happens after that initial air strike remain unanswered. What happens," the paper asks, "if Milosevic sits out that first air strike? How deep will the unity among the NATO allies be then, when the alliance considers further steps to force Milosevic to abort his program of destruction?"

MITTELDEUTSCHE: Wider action would present new responsibilities to Germany

The daily Mitteldeutsche suggests that any wider action against Milosevic would involve NATO support forces and, possibly, German troops. "That," it notes, "would be a development that Germany's cosseted post-war generation can barely imagine. It would also present new responsibilities to Germany," the paper says. It criticizes "the German government and the entire [German] political establishment for having so far failed to explain this to its people."

LIBERATION: NATO's force is far superior to anything the Yugoslavs can put in the air

The French national daily Liberation carries a military analysis by Jean-Dominique Merchet that says the first phase of the NATO strikes -- called by the Alliance, he writes, "Phase Zero" -- will be devoted to winning control of Serbian air space. "The Yugoslav land-air [anti-aircraft] defense system," according to Merchet, "will be NATO's initial target, [especially] air bases, missile sites, radar installations, and communication and command centers."

After the first strike, the analysis continues, "[NATO] fighter-bombers will continue the job with missiles and bombs guided by laser, television or satellite. The precision of these arms is very impressive," he adds.

The analyst also notes "the Yugoslav air defense system is organized along old Soviet lines, that is, it is very centralized, controlled from land installations and well-stocked in missiles." NATO's force of some 430 sophisticated planes, he adds, is far superior to anything the Yugoslavs can put in the air. But, he carefully notes, "if Serb pilots are willing to accept severe losses themselves, they can shoot down allied planes [even though] the principle threat to NATO aviators will come from land-to-air missiles, which the Yugoslav army has in great quantities."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Every day heightens the humanitarian emergency in Kosovo

Jacky Mamou, the French president of the humanitarian organization Medecins du Monde - Doctors of the World], writes in today's International Herald Tribune: "The plight of Kosovo's civilians worsens by the hour as the fighting between Serbs and the Kosovo Liberation Army [UCK] escalates. Once again," he adds, "entire families are being forced to flee their villages."

Mamou says that "a study of the four [Kosovo zones where Medecins du Monde has operated mobile clinics] found that close to 7,000 homes were destroyed. Yet 30,000 refugees were [already] on hand last month before the current influx. The health and food situation," he goes on, "is extremely precarious. As many as 50 men, women and children can be found sharing a single room." His commentary says further: "The uncertainty with which these people are confronted, as they constantly fear a new attack , aggravates the general deterioration of health.... Every day that passes without a...resolution [to the crisis] results in more displaced persons and heightens the humanitarian emergency in Kosovo."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: NATO must force Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet agreement

In another commentary on Kosovo carried by the IHT today, Anna Husarska writes that the real pressure in Kosovo is not on Slobodan Milosevic, as Western leaders have recently declared, but rather on the Alliance itself. NATO, she writes, must "force Mr. Milosevic to sign the Rambouillet agreement." This, Husarska, suggests, cannot be done only through air strikes, "because bombing alone does not remove a dictator, as we keep seeing in Iraq....NATO countries [will] have to put their [foot] soldiers in harm's way..."

The commentator goes on: "Kosovo is a place that the U.S. is not ready to stick its neck out for, and neither are the West Europeans....The three new [Central] European NATO members [the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland] might agree to do it, but that would make every other NATO nation look like a sissy."

Husarska urges NATO to back the UCK if, she emphasizes, ethnic Albanian fighters start "behaving like a regular civilized army, [end] kidnapping of civilians...start respecting the basic laws of war and applying the Geneva conventions." She concludes: "Last Friday [March 19], by welcoming three new members, NATO found itself having a common border [in Hungary] with a Yugoslavia ruled by Slobodan Milosevic. That should help to concentrate the Alliance's collective mind on standing up to him."