Brussels, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A NATO spokesman says the military alliance will always take account of the interests of its "friends" around Kosovo, scene of a growing humanitarian crisis as ethnic Albanian refugees continue to flee under reported attacks from Yugoslav army and Serb paramilitary units.
The assurance came as neighboring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro struggled to cope with an influx of tens of thousands of refugees, which some analysts fear could have a destabilizing effect on the Balkans region.
NATO's military spokesman David Wilby was responding to a question from a Hungarian journalist who asked about NATO's regional security policy amid a deepening Kosovo crisis, compared by another alliance official to an "Orwellian scenario."
The statements came on the eighth day of NATO air strikes aimed at deterring what western politicians call a new campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, where the 90 per cent Albanian population is fleeing or in hiding after reported attacks on their homes.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said yesterday that forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are gutting entire quarters of cities like the regional capital, Pristina, in what seems to be a systematic campaign aimed at victimizing people on account of their ethnicity.
NATO officials say there are reports of a long tailback of refugees seeking sanctuary in Macedonia, of Serb military and police units shelling civilians, and tens of thousands of internally displaced families living in woods, hills and mountain slopes.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said yesterday that what he called "crimes against humanity" in Kosovo were approaching the levels of "genocide."
Shea said at NATO headquarters in Brussels yesterday that the 19-nation alliance's primary concern now is to alleviate the "humanitarian disaster" in the Balkans region.
He said the refugee flow into neighboring countries has eased in the past 24 hours but he attributed this to the action of Yugoslav border guards closing frontier posts, while many refugees are now crossing illegally into neighboring countries.
NATO ambassadors were briefed about the unfolding refugee crisis in Brussels yesterday, and also about the inconclusive mediating mission to Belgrade yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov who had lengthy talks with Milosevic.
Shea said tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian are now living in the open within Kosovo. He said they are in a precarious position without food, water or shelter.
He said NATO officials are receiving reports that Serb forces are engaged in what he called "identity elimination" of Kosovar Albanians, systematically destroying archives, property deeds, marriage licenses, birth certificates and financial records.
He said "This is an Orwellian scenario of attempting to deprive a people and a culture of the sense of community on which it depends. This attempt to rewrite history reminds me of George Orwell's 1984." Earlier this week, NATO officials alleged that Serb paramilitary units were targeting Kosovar political leaders and intellectuals.
Shea said OSCE officials in Macedonia -- which has received an influx of 16,000 refugees in the past week -- are interviewing refugees as they cross the border, seeking evidence of what is going on, and gathering material for possible war crimes indictments.
Louise Arbour, prosecutor of the international war crimes panel in the Hague, said yesterday she has sent letters to FRY and Serb government officials, including Milosevic, reminding them of their obligations under international law and their accountability.
She said the jurisdiction of the tribunal extends to Kosovo and has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and the breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention.
Arbour disclosed she has issued an indictment and a warrant for the arrest of Arkan, head of a paramilitary group known as Arkan's Tigers, formerly active in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, because of his alleged involvement in the violence in Kosovo.
Wilby said NATO officials are particularly concerned about the plight of refugees, reportedly accompanied by some elements of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in the Pagarusa Valley of southwest Kosovo. He said reports suggest they are surrounded by Serb military and police units and have been shelled by Serb artillery and tanks.
He named the units involved in the reported operation as the 243rd, 549th and the 15th brigades of the Yugoslav army. At a news conference, he showed an aerial photograph of a long column of people and vehicles stretched along a winding road.
Wilby said that NATO planes mounted new attacks overnight on targets around Belgrade and in and around Kosovo, including Pristina. The operation was hampered by poor weather and, fearful of civilian casualties, not all the planes released their weapons.
Wilby said the NATO strikes have caused substantial damage to the Yugoslav forces' military capability, and have caused the FRY to ration and redirect all fuel available to the military. Wilby said he estimates that the NATO attacks have destroyed or damaged either in the air or on the ground some 30 Yugoslav air force planes.
Wilby said the air campaign aimed, he said, at relieving the "appalling pressure on the Kosovar Albanians", will continue. But he added "There is no instant solution. This will be an extended campaign." Officials in Belgrade accuse NATO of illegal aggression against a sovereign country, and claim that the refugees are fleeing Kosovo because of fear of the NATO attacks. But ethnic Albanian refugees said they fled because of Serb intimidation.
Shea said "All our meetings with Kosovar Albanian leaders outside Kosovo show that they want us to continue" with the NATO air campaign.
Shea said Secretary General Javier Solana authorized NATO's military commanders yesterday to extend the "range and tempo" of the air operations to maximize their effectiveness, but he said media reports that the air command has moved to the final stages of the operation -- so called Phase Three -- are incorrect. NATO officials have offered no timetable as to how long the air campaign is likely to last, or if it will be over by the time of NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington in three weeks' time.
NATO officials continue to insist that there are no plans to deploy ground troops in Kosovo, regarded by defense officials as hazardous in view of the estimated 30,000 Yugoslav army troops and 300 tanks in what is difficult and mined terrain.
Shea said that yesterday's meeting of the 19 NATO ambassadors "very much appreciated" the decision by Primakov to go to Belgrade to try to secure an end to the violence.
But he said US President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had all made it clear that what he called the very vague offer of Milosevic to start negotiations without meeting other alliance demands "fall completely short of our requirements."
Primakov, who has condemned the NATO air strikes, has said the NATO demand for Serb forces to withdraw entirely from Kosovo is too high a price to demand.
Questioned by journalists, Shea said the alliance is aware of reports that Russian navy ships have moved from their anchorage in Sevastopol on the Black Sea south towards the Mediterranean. He referred to what he called a "very firm statement" from President Boris Yeltsin that Russia does not intend to get involved in the Balkans crisis. He said "Obviously, we are counting on President Yeltsin to keep to those words."
Clinton said yesterday that the offensive against ethnic Albanians could undermine international support for Serbian claims on its southern province. Long-time western policy has been to support autonomy for Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia but not full independence. Shea said yesterday "For the time being our policy is the same."
He said the NATO alliance at present still envisages autonomy for Kosovo, but a very far reaching degree of autonomy that would guarantee the human rights of all its people, and a large degree of self-government in politics, justice, police and other areas. This was the settlement envisaged by the inconclusive Rambouillet, Paris, peace process.
He said "Obviously the longer President Milosevic continues his brutal campaign of repression, the harder it will be to get that process back on track."
Shea said the NATO allies have launched a major operation to get aid, medicine and food to Albania and other countries to help them cope with the refugee influx.