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Yugoslavia: NATO Admits Air Power Cannot Stop Serb Ethnic Cleansing

  • Ben Partridge

Brussels, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's political and military leaders are vowing to press on with air strikes against Yugoslav forces, while acknowledging that they have not been sufficient to end a crackdown by Serb forces in Kosovo.

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Wesley Clark, told a NATO briefing in Brussels yesterday that air power alone cannot stop what he called "murder" by Serb paramilitary forces.

Speaking after more than a week of NATO air attacks on Serb military targets, Clark said that the Yugoslav army and Serb police and paramilitary units have continued attacks by heavy forces, tanks and artillery, particularly in the Pagarusa Valley in southwest Kosovo. NATO says the operations are part of a calculated effort by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to ethnically cleanse Kosovo.

NATO officials have not said how they could effectively move against the paramilitary units. They have repeatedly said ground troops are not an option.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe estimates that 10,000 Kosovars crossed into Albania last night alone. Aid agencies now put the total number fleeing to neighboring countries since last week at some 120,000.

Officials in Belgrade continue to accuse NATO of conducting a criminal and aggressive campaign against federal Yugoslavia, and claim that the ethnic Albanians are fleeing from the threat of NATO bombs and missiles rather that Serb intimidation.

Solana rejected the claim, saying "there is only one person responsible for all of the refugees now flowing into neighboring countries, and that is Milosevic." He added that "every refugee testifies that Milosevic's soldiers drove them from their homes, not NATO bombs."

Clark said the Serb forces are engaged in what he called a grim combination of "terror and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale." He said this is being perpetrated by what he called the "last vestige of a hard-core communist dictatorship in Europe."

Responding to criticism that there is no sign that NATO air strikes are reducing the intensity of the Serb campaign, Clark said: NATO had "said at the outset that it would not be a one or two-bomb affair." But he said NATO's air campaign will have "increasingly severe consequences" for what he called the Yugoslav "military machine", adding that "this machine is going to be increasingly taken apart."

But at the same briefing, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana also acknowledged that air strikes alone cannot end the crackdown on Kosovar Albanians.

"Let me stress that it is clear that the only solution to this humanitarian crisis is a political settlement in Kosovo which will allow refugees to return... home in safety. That political settlement will have to be underwritten by a NATO-led peace implementation force. President Milosevic will have to listen to these messages."

Some critics of the NATO campaign in Western capitals, meanwhile, say the alliance should send ground forces to the region if it is to stop the killing and displacement of Kosovar civilians.

But Solana, as well as the U.S.'s top military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, repeated yesterday that the alliance is not prepared to deploy troops in Kosovo without a political settlement and a ceasefire.

NATO governments are worried about incurring casualties to their own troops in the mountainous and mined terrain of Kosovo, where, according to intelligence reports, some 40,000 Yugoslav troops and 300 tanks are stationed.

One the strangest developments in NATO's standoff with Belgrade was the reported arrival in the Serbian capital, under unclear circumstances, of Ibrahim Rugova, a prominent ethnic Albanian leader. Serbian state-run television showed video of what it said was a meeting between Milosevic and Rugova yesterday. The two were shown shaking hands and the report said they had agreed on the need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Western officials raised questions about the claimed meeting and agreement. NATO Secretary General Solana:

"It doesn't seem that Rugova is freely doing what he is doing. I would prefer very much when he has to talk and say some of the things he has said to have said it to me personally. I would be much more relaxed with that."

Meanwhile, attention is also focused on the three U.S. soldiers who had been stationed in Macedonia before being captured by Yugoslav forces this week. Yugoslav authorities say they will face a trial today in a military court. It's unclear what the men are being charged with.

Belgrade says the three were detained on Serb territory but the U.S. military says they were abducted while on patrol in neighboring Macedonia. U.S. President Bill Clinton said yesterday that he holds Milosevic personally responsible for the safety of the soldiers.