Washington, 5 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says he is considering sending U.S. troops to Kosovo to help safeguard peace in the violence-torn Serb province. Some members of the U.S. Congress, however, question the idea of a major American military commitment there.
Clinton said in a speech Thursday that the U.S. troops - part of a planned NATO force that would include soldiers from Britain, France, Germany and other countries- could be dispatched if a peace settlement is reached between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
The president said U.S. participation in a NATO-led peacekeeping force would also depend on withdrawal from Kosovo of Serbian security forces, restrictions on weapons for the Kosovar fighters and a well-defined NATO mission with a clear exit strategy.
Peace talks between the two warring sides are scheduled to begin on Saturday near Paris.
Clinton said the Balkans are an explosive area. He said unless violence is contained in Kosovo, fighting could spread to other countries such as Albania and Macedonia, and even draw in Greece and Turkey:
Clinton said: "We have agreed with our allies on a strategy that, we believe, can bring peace and to back that strategy with the threat of force by NATO. If a settlement -- and this is a big if -- if a settlement is reached, a NATO presence on the ground in Kosovo could prove essential in giving both sides the confidence they need to pull back from their fights. If that happens, we are seriously considering the possibility of our participation in such a force.
Concerning the peace talks, Clinton said he had a message for both sides:
"For the Kosovar Albanians, I'd like to say that this is a chance, not just to stop your people from getting killed, but to take control of your destiny, where your rights, your faith and your culture are respected, and you have the autonomy you have been promised by law. For the Serbs, this is a chance to prove Kosovo can remain part of your country while regaining its autonomy and peace. For the people of both communities, this is a chance to stop wasting your energies and your lives on a useless war and to start conserving them for building a more open and prosperous future for your children. I hope that the people will take this chance."
Senior U.S. Defense Department officials briefed Congress in advance of the Clinton speech. They said the troops would be needed there for at least three years.
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Our numbers could be very low, down maybe possibly as low as 2,000 to 4,000. And I would see that being the maximum number that we would be asked to contribute, even if they (NATO) decided to go in with 30,000."
Defense Secretary William Cohen said the president has the authority to dispatch the troops without Congressional approval.
But Cohen said: "There would have to be a real agreement, not something that is illusory, not something that has the appearance of being an agreement, but would allow our people - should we have people on the ground - to be caught in the crossfire between the warring and ethnic factions."
A number of Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee questioned the idea of sending U.S. troops where they could be subject to violence.
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said: "From my conversations with other senators, I don't believe this Congress is going to be very receptive to any major long-term commitment of troops in Kosovo.
"I do not at this time support ground troops in Kosovo, because I do not know what the game plan is," said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. "I do not know what the exit strategy is, and I don't know how many of our forces would be involved."
But Senator John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said instability in Kosovo could jeopardize the U.S.-brokered Bosnia peace accord. Warner said he would support stationing U.S. troops in Kosovo.
Warner suggested instead of having an American lead the peacekeeping force, a British officer be in charge to send a signal that Europe is beginning to assume a greater role in the Balkans.
Under a draft plan, the U.S. is proposing a significant reduction of Serbian control over Kosovo and giving the province considerable self-government powers - while still permitting some continued Serbian military presence.
Kosovo is the southernmost province of Serbia, the dominant republic of the two left in Yugoslavia.
Shortly after the Clinton speech Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered what the administration billed as a major policy address on Kosovo.
Albright said the tragedy of one small people merits America's attention. Besides, she said, the issue of Kosovo is not just about human rights and justice - it's a matter of U.S. national security.
The secretary of state said the United States has a fundamental interest in strengthening democracy in the Balkans and to make sure the rule of law is upheld.
She said Kosovo is on the verge of renewed violence unless a peace agreement is worked out and that conflict could spread.
Albright said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's policies toward Kosovo have polarized the province and triggered the fighting.
She said that for 10 years Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population fought a courageous campaign to regain the rights they had lost.
But about one year ago, Albright said Milosevic launched a brutal crackdown. Police and military forces were sent in, she said, to terrorize civilians, killing hundreds and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. Under these conditions, Albright said many Kosovars abandoned their non-violent struggle and took up arms.
Albright said the Kosovo Liberation Army offers what she called a deceptively simple answer to the tragedy of Kosovo: independence from the federal Republic of Yugoslavia. She said there is no guarantee that independence would lead to peace in Kosovo, and ample reason to fear that it could undermine stability elsewhere in the region.
The secretary of state said the best answer for Kosovo for the next three years is full autonomy and all Yugoslavia must adhere to international standards of human rights.
Albright said: "The core of what we are proposing has not changed and will not. We aim to put in place a durable and fair interim agreement that will create a peaceful political framework for Kosovo while deferring the question of Kosovo's status for several years.
The people of Kosovo must be able to govern themselves democratically without interference from Belgrade while the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity and sovereignty are maintained. And they must possess all the institutions a democratic government requires, from a legislature and an independent judiciary to a locally controlled police force. All the ethnic groups of Kosovo, of which there are several in addition to the Albanians and Serbs, must be treated fairly. They must be able to control without government interference their identities and cultural life. And the rights of individuals of all ethnicities must be fully protected."
Albright also said that Russia has agreed to cooperate with the West in trying to find a peaceful solution to Kosovo. She said Moscow is sending a senior official to the peace talks.
She said: "One of the best outcomes of our experience in Bosnia has been the understanding, trust and partnership that developed between Russia and its colleagues in the field, at the negotiating table and even at NATO. Each participating country has gained from Bosnia a broader sense of its own national interests and a shared stake in achieving a common sense of security in Europe. And certainly, we would welcome any decision by Russia to participate in a Kosovo Peace Implementation Force."