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Yugoslavia: NATO Says Belgrade May Be 'Coming To Terms With Reality'

  • Ben Partridge

Brussels, 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea says the offer from Belgrade (April 6) of an Orthodox Easter cease-fire in Kosovo is the first sign of what he called a "chink in the armor" or -- as he also put it -- a sign that it is coming to terms with reality.

But he repeated the NATO position that the cease-fire offer is so far insufficient and said that the NATO air campaign against Serb military targets -- now in its third week -- will continue.

A news conference in Brussels yesterday was told that NATO fliers flew 439 sorties yesterday over Serbia, including Kosovo, and hit 28 fixed target areas.

NATO military spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby, told reporters yesterday that the targets included a column of Serbian military vehicles:

"In one attack, we were able to drop weapons on a column of between seven and 12 vehicles."

Shea said a total of 42,000 ethnic Albanians left Kosovo on Tuesday, bringing the total of displaced persons since the crisis began in March last year to 912,000.

Shea said NATO continues to be "deeply preoccupied by stories of war crimes and violations of international law in Kosovo."

He said NATO officials have heard reports from refugees fleeing into Albania and Macedonia suggesting that 50 Kosovar Albanian villages have been burned.

He said the refugees report that Serb homes and villages remain largely intact, with inhabitants painting a Cyrillic "S" on their doors to identify themselves.

He said NATO officials are looking for corroboration of refugees' reports of a total of 22 alleged atrocities, including allegations of three mass graves in various areas of Kosovo.

He said there are also reports of Serb forces using ethnic Albanian men as "human shields" against artillery fire from the last remnants of secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army forces.

Shea expressed concern at reports that Serb forces may have tried to push people back into Kosovo by preventing them from departing into neighboring countries.

"We don't have much evidence on this and we are still seeking it out. But if it were to be true it would be very alarming indeed because it is one thing to push refugees over borders, where the international community is now increasingly ready to deal with them in a humane way. But it's quite another to push them back into a wasteland."

He said that if the reports are corroborated, the Kosovar Albanians are being returned to a region "with no food, very little water, and no medical supplies." He said: "I hope that the Belgrade government is not playing poker with people's lives by creating a further internal crisis."

Shea said that NATO ambassadors yesterday put several key questions to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that need to be resolved before negotiations on a cease-fire can begin:

"Is President Milosevic prepared for a verifiable cessation of all combat activities and killings? Is he prepared to withdraw military police and paramilitary forces from Kosovo? Is he prepared to agree to the deployment of an international security force? Is he prepared to permit the return of all refugees and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid. And finally, is he prepared to put in place a political framework for Kosovo on the basis of the Ramboiullet accords?" Shea said there will be an exceptional meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Monday in Brussels to discuss the Kosovo crisis.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott yesterday briefed NATO ambassadors about his visits to countries bordering Yugoslavia in the past few days. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen met with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana this morning.

Shea said NATO has expressed gratitude to Slovakia, which agreed (April 6) to authorize the unrestricted use of its air space to NATO fliers. He said: "We are very grateful for that strong sign of solidarity and support from an important partner country."