Washington, 23 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization embark on a 50th anniversary summit today to chart the future course of the military alliance that is credited with having kept the peace during the Cold War and is now being tested in the Balkans.
The three-day meeting in Washington opens in the shadow of the Kosovo conflict, with its flood of ethnic Albanian refugees and reports of Serb atrocities against civilians. The summit was originally intended as a celebration - now toned down - of what NATO leaders call the world's most successful military alliance in history.
NATO has been waging an air campaign against Yugoslavia in an effort to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down in Kosovo. It is seeking the withdrawal of Serb troops from the province, the return of refugees to their homes and the stationing of an international peacekeeping force to protect civilians against Serb troops and police.
It is NATO's first offensive action against a sovereign state that has so far failed to deliver its stated objectives. This, in turn, has raised questions about whether the alliance that witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union without firing a shot can - or should - cope with the ethnic conflicts of the new millennium.
NATO's Secretary General Javier Solana summed up the alliance's mission for Kosovo at a White House news conference Thursday.
Solana said: "If Europe is to enjoy a stable, democratic peace, it is essential that our values prevail in Kosovo and not those values of Milosevic. At our summit tomorrow, we will demonstrate our alliance's unity, the alliance's resolve. We will not be divided. We will not be diverted from our objective and the objective is clear - the removal of Serb forces from Kosovo and as the president has said, an international force that will be able to ensure that the refugees - the people who are really suffering now - can go back to their country, to their homes, with security."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Thursday the treatment of ethnic Albanian civilians and Milosevic's refusal to acknowledge Serb responsibility are disturbing.
Albright said: "Milosevic repeated in an interview broadcast last night his big lie that refugees from Kosovo are fleeing NATO's bombs, not Belgrade's ethnic cleansing. That will certainly be news to the refugees, who are giving eyewitness accounts of the atrocities perpetrated at Milosevic's order. Milosevic can deny the truth, but he cannot change it. And the truth is that his forces are responsible for the worst crimes committed in Europe in more than half a century."
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook echoed Albright's remarks at a joint news conference.
Cook said: "Over the past three weeks, I have met a number of Kosovar Albanians in London. They all bring the same tales of the savagery from Kosovo. Earlier this week, I met one man who was one of the last to leave Pristina. He described the methodical way in which that town was emptied by Milosevic's thugs, district by district, time after time families being told the same thing -- that they have five minutes to get out of the house."
The NATO summit is scheduled to begin at 1515 Prague time with a meeting of the heads of state and of governments and delegation leaders of the 19 NATO members. The subject of the initial meeting will focus on the Kosovo crisis. Day No. 1 of the summit will end with a White House dinner beginning at 0200 Saturday Prague time.
Participating in the summit will be three new members: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The former East Bloc countries were admitted into the alliance last month during the first wave of NATO expansion. They joined shortly before the air campaign began against Yugoslavia.
The U.S. Congress has been supportive of American participation in the conflict. Earlier this week, a group of senators introduced a resolution that would give President Bill Clinton all means necessary to bring the military campaign to a successful resolution.
U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is among the few Democratic members of Congress who is against the air campaign.
In interview Thursday with RFE/RL, Kucinich explained his reasons why.
Kucinich said: "This talk of war is developing a very powerful presence in Washington. After a while, it has the ability to just draw this city and the country into a vortex of war that makes it almost impossible to get out of. What I am trying to do as a member of Congress is to try to keep alive a peace consciousness so that we can believe that peace is inevitable here and war is not inevitable and we can still seek to resolve the issues in a peaceful way through negotiations and not simply through military solutions."
Asked about the human tragedy facing ethnic Albanians, the congressman said:
"There is no question that the plight of the refugees moves everyone's heart. I am very affected by watching the images of refugees. The question is how can we move from those very grim set of circumstances to a position of peace without involving the total destruction of Serbia and the civilian population as well of the military. And that's what we are challenged to do. It is in everyone's interest to go back to negotiate."