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Serbia: U.S. Steps Up Pressure

Washington, 12 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says he is hopeful that renewed pressure on Serbia will help prevent further violence in Kosovo.

Clinton told reporters Wednesday that recent clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbian authorities are a matter of "great concern" to him.

He said the United States condemns "in the strongest possible terms excessive violence that has led to the death of innocent civilians there."

The president says he believes the root cause of the problem is an "inadequate response by the Serbian government to legitimate concerns of the Albanian minority in Serbia," which he emphasized forms a majority in Kosovo.

Kosovo, a Serbian province, is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. The province is seeking greater autonomy from Belgrade, including language rights.

Many favor independence, a quest the United States refuses to support. The U.S. position is that Kosovo should remain in Serbia but be granted autonomy rights.

Clinton commented on the situation in Kosovo before meeting with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the White House. The two leaders discussed the Kosovo situation as well as Iraq, the Middle East peace process and the U.S. membership debt to the United Nations.

Clinton said he believes a recent decision by world leaders to put pressure on Belgrade, and ask the U.N. to restore sanctions, including an arms embargo on Serbia, "gives us some hope that we can resolve this."

He said: "we do not want the Balkans to have more pictures like we've seen in the last few days, so reminiscent of what Bosnia endured."

The president was referring to scores of women and children being killed last week during a Serbian assault on ethnic Albanian communities.

Asked whether military action by the international community would be considered to prevent a possible spread of the conflict, Clinton responded: "we believe that no option should be ruled in or out now." He did not elaborate.

At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin said Washington would be "surprised" if Russia - a historic ally of Serbia - would try to block imposition of U.N. sanctions on Serbia."

He said the U.S. would be "doubly surprised" if such a resolution were to pass, and Moscow would break it.

The U.S. has given Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic until March 25 to reverse course or face the possibility of sanctions and a freeze on Belgrade's overseas assets. Rubin also said the decision by the Serbian police to quickly bury 50 Muslim victims earlier this week near the village of Prekaz is outrageous.

He said the move indicates that the Belgrade government has something to hide.

The State Department spokesman said the burials were done without the approval of the families and before independent investigators could look at the corpses.

"When civilians and people are targeted and killed based on their ethnicity and driven out of their homes based on their ethnicity, that is, in my book, ethnic cleansing," Rubin said.