Washington, 2 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Defense Department says the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance moved closer to a decision on whether to launch air strikes against Serbian troops in Kosovo.
Spokesman Kenneth Bacon says NATO issued a warning Thursday alerting alliance members that military action was being contemplated.
Bacon told reporters the next step is an "activation order" -- a decision by NATO ambassadors to authorize the use of force. The directive would give NATO's military commander the authority needed to use force, if necessary.
Bacon said: "What NATO has planned is a graduated series of possible air attacks that could at the high end involve a very significant number of airplanes." He said the U.S. contribution would be substantial.
The Defense Department spokesman said all the options involve striking against Serbian military targets.
He said: "The goal is to reduce or degrade the Serbian military's ability to continue striking Kosovar Albanians, to continue its attacks."
The United Nations is making an assessment on whether Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has complied with U.N. demands --withdrawal of Serbian forces from civilian areas, free flow of humanitarian aid, and launching a meaningful political dialogue with the ethnic-Albanian leadership.
Bacon said latest reports indicate Serbian forces are continuing their attacks northwest of Pristina despite assurances by Belgrade that the military offensive in Kosovo is over. But at the same time, he said, some elements of Serbian forces were returning to their barracks.
Bacon said a NATO decision on use of military force could come as early as next week after a report by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The U.N. chief is to outline Serbia's compliance -- or lack of it -- with the U.N. demands.
At the White House, spokesman Michael McCurry indicated that the U.S. already has sufficient authority to launch military action through NATO -- with or without U.N. authorization. Senior U.S. officials went to Congress to brief key lawmakers behind closed doors.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said after consulting with U.S. lawmakers that this "ethnic cleansing (in Kosovo) is unacceptable." Defense Secretary William Cohen, who also participated in the briefing, called on Belgrade to pull back its forces.
McCurry said that in recent weeks Serbian troops have used overwhelming force, resulting in the death of thousands of civilians.
Asked whether Russia would be likely to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force against the Serbs, McCurry said it is clear that Moscow would prefer only diplomatic means to settle the crisis.
He said: "I doubt their views have changed significantly, but I think what's changed now is they understand that Milosevic has remained intransigent in the face of world opinion."
At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin advised Americans to get out of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) and said those who have travel plans should not go there. He said the warning was issued because of a possible military action against Yugoslavia.
An estimated 30 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed during the weekend. Serbian forces have been accused of carrying out the massacres. Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic has denied any Serbian involvement in the killings.
Jovanovic said in Washington his government does not believe NATO will launch air strikes against his country. He told reporters that the Belgrade government believes NATO will reason to help resolve the situation. He said the threat of military force will not lead to dialogue between the government and the ethnic Albanians.
Also on Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he doesn't believe diplomacy alone will be enough to end the violence. He repeated Britain's support for possible air strikes.