Prague, 19 February (RFE/RL) - NATO will face a tough military challenge in carrying out threatened punitive strikes should Serbian and Kosovo Albanian negotiators fail to reach a peace accord by tomorrow's noon deadline.
Talks with the two sides are continuing outside Paris today but with no agreement in sight as Belgrade continues to refuse one of the accord's key provisions: the deployment of some 28,000 NATO troops in Kosovo to secure any peace deal.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that tomorrow's deadline is firm and that if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refuses to strike a deal he will, in her words, be "hit hard and deprived of things he values."
At the same time, peace mediators have threatened to turn their back on Kosovo Albanians if they continue to obstruct a deal by balking at disarming their rebel forces.
Analysts say that NATO now has some 430 strike and support planes on alert, plus hundreds of cruise missiles, for punitive strikes if necessary. The amount of force is a reflection of the challenge NATO will face if and when it acts.
Clifford Beale, an editor of the defense industry magazine Jane's Weekly in London, says Yugoslavia is well armed and that all signs indicate its forces will defend its air space.
He told RFE/RL that "everything coming out of Serbia and our correspondents there have told us that they are prepared to fight and defend their territory. If there are raids you will see quite a few missiles being fired at what they consider [to be] any enemy aircraft. And it is going to be quite a challenge to really dismantle the Serbian air defense network."
Beale says the initial phase of any NATO strikes are likely to be conducted with cruise missiles and radar-invisible Stealth bombers. They will hit Serbia's air defense system, which experts estimate includes some 600 Russian-made missiles, among them highly effective SA-2, SA-6, and SA-11 surface-to-air systems.
He says that NATO's strategy would likely be to destroy those defense systems protecting corridors leading to specific targets for bombers to attack later. According to Beale, such targets could include command and control communications facilities, tank storage depots, air bases and possibly barracks.
U.S. officials have said that NATO would hit military assets which have enabled Belgrade to carry out crackdowns in Kosovo which have cost hundreds of civilian lives. They have said targets may be both inside Kosovo and also in Serbia proper.
Beale says that NATO will have to bring overbearing force to apply in any strikes against Yugoslavia in order to limit threats to its own pilots. That, he says, leaves no doubt about the outcome of the engagement.
He told our correspondent that "if NATO applies all the force that is at its command ... make no mistake, the Serbians will be the losers in this. They will have their air defense system completely dismantled and targets will be struck with impunity. The only question [that] remains [is] at what cost to NATO?"
As tomorrow's deadline for an accord approaches, some Western embassies in the Yugoslav capital have announced plans to withdraw part of their staffs. Officials from the Canadian and British embassies in Belgrade say evacuations began this morning.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says that it will only remove its 1,300 verifiers from Kosovo when it receives notice of impending air strikes. Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told RFE/RL in an interview from Vienna today that any evacuation would be by ground and take just a few hours to complete.
Fleming said that "we have been prepared for this from day one. There was always a threat of NATO bombing so the OSCE has always had an evacuation plan. There have been rehearsals this week. There could be unpleasant obstacles, which we are also prepared for and the NATO extraction force in neighboring Macedonia is standing by to assist if there are any obstacles."
Since the OSCE team was deployed in late December, NATO has maintained a French-led Extraction Force in Macedonia in readiness to protect the unarmed verifiers. NATO planners have feared since the OSCE mission began that either side in Kosovo might try to hold the international peace efforts hostage by kidnapping the peace monitors, who are dispersed across the southern Serbian province.