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Yugoslavia: Cook Sees No Evidence Of Serbian Troop Withdrawal

  • Ben Partridge

London, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today that there is no evidence of Yugoslav army troops withdrawing from Kosovo.

He also says reports suggest that fighting is continuing in central and western Kosovo between Serb forces and those of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

Earlier, Belgrade claimed to be withdrawing half of its troops from Kosovo because fighting against the UCK had ended. Cook said there is no basis for this claim -- the second such claim in a month.

Cook told a daily British Defence Ministry briefing in London that the withdrawal offer by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is "a cynical gambit."

Cook repeated NATO's fundamental condition for ending its seven-week bombing campaign -- the safe return of hundreds of thousands Kosovar Albanian refugees under the protection of an effective international security presence with NATO at its core.

He said NATO "will not compromise on that fundamental principle" adding that to do so would "be a betrayal of the Kosovar Albanians who have been driven from their towns and villages" by what he called "a campaign of terror."

"We are quite clear -- our objective is the removal of Serb forces from Kosovo, and the reason for that is very clear. I don't actually believe that the refugees would have the confidence to return if they believe that Serb forces are present at any significant operational level. Whether, at the end of the day, the Serbs may wish to have somebody standing around a flag for the symbolism, that is a matter we can consider. But certainly, in terms of forces that are operational, that have the capacity to repress, the capacity to maneuver and to enforce their own will, there is absolutely no question of those forces remaining in Kosovo."

Cook commented on reports that Fehmi Agani, one of the Kosovo Albanian team who signed the abortive Rambouillet accords, has been killed.

He said Agani, who had been in hiding in Kosovo for several weeks, last week tried to reach safety by taking a train to Macedonia. But Cook said the train was halted by Serbian police. Cook said Agani "was removed from the train" and "two days later his body was returned by the Serbian police to his family in Pristina."

Cook said the case of Agani "is a clear demonstration of the extent to which Milosevic has no respect for those who talk peace."

Cook said the 19-nation NATO alliance will be working from now on with Moscow to build on principles agreed in last week's G-7 plus Russia meeting to reach a settlement to the Kosovo crisis. He said the aim is to turn those principles into a resolution to go before the UN Security Council.

Cook repeated the NATO bombing at the weekend of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was "a tragic error."

China, which has angrily protested the attack in which three people died, has said it will not discuss any UN-brokered peace deal until NATO stops air strikes. China has a veto in the UN Security Council and could block any agreement.

NATO officials have admitted that the bombing of the embassy happened because the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used a map from 1992 for setting targets. The map had been reviewed twice but failed to identify the Chinese embassy which moved in 1996.

In the past 24 hours, NATO weapons have hit industrial and communications sites across Yugoslavia, including Belgrade.

General Sir Charles Guthrie, head of the British defence staff, said NATO operations have gathered pace:

"Over the last 24 hours, NATO operations intensified as the weather improved. We were able to strike at a comprehensive range of targets among Serb fielded forces on the ground and maintain momentum in our assault on Serb communications and infrastructure. NATO aircraft struck tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, mortar positions, and petrol production storage. Vehicles in defensive positions, troops, military equipment, and assembly areas were also attacked."

NATO has now flown more than 18,800 sorties, of which over 4,800 were attack sorties, since the air strikes began on March 24. Guthrie said over 600 sorties were flown in the past 24 hours.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told a news briefing in Brussels today that the Yugoslav army and special police seem to be trying harder than ever before to capture the remaining KLA strongholds in Kosovo. He said the number of casualties on the KLA side were "fairly heavy."

NATO's military spokesman Major General Walter Jertz said the Serb ground forces in Kosovo have proved skilled in using tunnels, natural camouflage and buildings in villages to make it difficult to locate and attack them from the air.

But Jertz said a NATO air strike at a major tunnel complex near Pristina yesterday was "particularly effective." He said improving weather yesterday enabled NATO to bring more firepower to bear against Serb forces across Kosovo.

Jertz was asked about media reports that NATO is to launch air strikes against Yugoslavia from the territory of Turkey and Hungary.

He said "Hungary and Turkey are NATO members. We do welcome all forces to ensure that Serbia is surrounded by those countries supporting the air operations, and the goals we are achieving. But, for operational reasons, there will be no further comments if both countries do bring aircraft in."

Jertz added that it was up to the governments in Budapest and Ankara to announce any plans to let NATO launch air strikes from their territory.

NATO remains concerned about the plight of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kosovar Albanians, many of them living in the open.

Shea said various initiatives are being discussed, including a proposal for humanitarian aid convoys to enter Kosovo and deliver supplies. There are also proposals for non-governmental organizations to conduct air drops of supplies, using commercial aircraft.

But both plans -- coordinated with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees -- depend on Belgrade's prior agreement not to interfere with the relief efforts.

Shea said, "These flights would have to take place with the permission of Belgrade."

Shea said some 9,800 refugees were pushed into Albania yesterday.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana will go to Albania and Macedonia tomorrow to see first hand the refugee camps built by NATO forces. He will also have talks with leaders of the two countries.

General Wesley Clark, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, is today in Italy, talking to the alliance pilots and other personnel.