Washington, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia were necessary to prevent an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo and a wider war in Europe.
He says ending the suffering of innocent people is a moral imperative.
Clinton delivered two nationwide television addresses Wednesday about the U.S.-led NATO attacks on military targets in Yugoslavia -- primarily air defenses in Serbia and military installations in its sister republic, Montenegro. The two republics comprise rump Yugoslavia.
In his first brief remarks, Clinton said military action was taken only after extensive efforts had failed to obtain a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo, an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia. Clinton said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic violated his commitments to stop "the brutal repression in Kosovo," rejecting a peace accord that was accepted by ethnic Albanians.
The accord, worked out in France earlier this month, would grant autonomy -- though not independence -- to Kosovo. It would also pave the way to the stationing of NATO peacekeepers there, including American troops. Belgrade rejected the idea of stationing foreign troops in Kosovo, saying it would violate its sovereignty.
Clinton said: "Kosovo's crisis now is full-blown. And if we do not act, clearly it will get even worse. Only firmness now can prevent greater catastrophe later."
The U.S. president said the NATO strikes have three objectives.
Clinton said: "First, to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's opposition to aggression and its support for peace. Second, to deter President Milosevic from continuing and escalating his attacks on helpless civilians by imposing a price for those attacks. And third, if necessary, to damage Serbia's capacity to wage war against Kosovo in the future by seriously diminishing its military capabilities."
Military action is not risk free, Clinton said, but the dangers of acting now are clearly outweighed by the risks of failing to act -- the risks that many more innocent people will die or be driven from their homes. And, he said, there is a risk that the conflict will involve and destabilize neighboring nations.
Clinton said in an address to the nation Wednesday evening (Washington time) that if Milosevic is unwilling to make peace, NATO forces will limit his ability to wage war in the Balkans.
The president said that by acting now, the United States and its allies are upholding their values, protecting their interests and advancing the cause of peace.
Clinton said the world has already seen "innocent people taken from their homes, forced to kneel in the dirt and sprayed by bullets," in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Department officials, providing the first briefing on the military situation Wednesday, said there was no indication of casualties to American and other NATO forces following the initial wave of air strikes.
Secretary of Defense William Cohen told reporters in Washington that all U.S. airplanes had returned safely after carrying out their initial missions. And Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Henry Shelton said there were no reports of other allied casualties.
Cohen said the initial targets had been Yugoslav air defenses, command and control systems and Serb military forces deployed in Kosovo. He said sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles spearheaded the attacks.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said:
"It is indeed tragic that diplomacy has failed, but there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace. In helping maintain international peace and security, Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter assigns an important role to regional organizations. But as secretary-general, I have many times pointed out, not just in relation to Kosovo, that under the Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, and this is explicitly acknowledged in the North Atlantic Treaty. Therefore, the Council should be involved in any decision to resort to force."
At an emergency Security Council session Wednesday night, Russia demanded that NATO stop its air attacks at once.
At the Defense Department briefing, Cohen said: "We are striking a range of military targets, including Yugoslavia's extensive air-defense system, its command and control system, and the military forces that Yugoslavia is using to suppress the Albanians in the province of Kosovo. It is Yugoslavia's protracted campaign of military repression of the Kosovar Albanians that has made this action necessary to avoid humanitarian disaster and to prevent the spread of instability in Europe."
Cohen also said: "The military objective of our action is to deter further action against the Kosovars and to diminish the ability of the Yugoslav army to continue those attacks if necessary. And I'd like to be clear here: We are attacking the military infrastructure that President Milosevic and his forces are using to repress and kill innocent people. NATO forces are not attacking the people of Yugoslavia; they are attacking the military forces that are responsible for the killing and the carnage in Kosovo. "
Shelton described Yugoslav air defenses as very capable. He said they pose a considerable threat to NATO aircraft. The general added there is no such thing as a risk-free military operation.
As for Russian opposition to the strikes, Cohen said the U.S. shares many interests with Russia. He expressed hope that Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who postponed his visit to Washington this week, could soon come to the United States to work on a busy agenda.
Cohen said: "We hope that the temporary deferment, at least, of his trip here can be re-engaged at a later time and that any tensions that might be generated by this particular action can be defused rather quickly, at least. We understand and they understand that we have overriding interests with our two countries, and we intend to pursue these with them as quickly as we can. So we watch it very closely, and we stay in communication. We'll continue to stay in communication with them, directly and through others."