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Yugoslavia: Likelihood Of NATO Strikes Over Kosovo Increases

Prague, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The possibility of NATO air strikes against Yugoslav forces has increased in recent days as Kosovo's Albanians move closer to accepting an autonomy plan for the province, while Belgrade remains defiant about allowing NATO forces into Kosovo.

The Kosovo Liberation Army's (UCK) hard-line political leader, Adem Demaci, resigned (March 2) under pressure from others in the UCK. The U.S. State Department had said that Demaci -- though he didn't attend recent peace talks near Paris -- had been the main obstacle to getting ethnic Albanian delegates to sign the Western-backed plan.

Demaci had called the plan "treason" against ethnic Albanian hopes for independence from Serbia. He had demanded that any peace plan include a guarantee for a referendum on Kosovo's independence.

Veton Surroi -- a member of the ethnic Albanian delegation at last month's talks -- says Demaci lost much of his support because of his refusal to compromise. Surroi spoke with RFE/RL:

"I think that Mr. Demaci understood that he was in a very difficult position because he realized that his attitudes had become minority ones."

While ethnic Albanian negotiators said today they will sign the Western plan, Belgrade remains adamant in opposing a key provision -- the deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo. In Belgrade yesterday, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic told U.S. mediator Christopher Hill that a political settlement is still a long way off.

NATO has threatened air strikes against Yugoslavia if Belgrade alone opposes a peace plan. Hill is briefing NATO ambassadors in Brussels today about the latest situation in Serbia.

Meanwhile, monitors in Kosovo from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) say the Yugoslav army is continuing to concentrate troops in the province. And OSCE spokeswoman Beatrice Lacoste has told RFE/RL that Yugoslav anti-aircraft artillery has also been moved into Kosovo in recent days. Because the UCK has no aircraft, the deployment of anti-aircraft artillery seems to indicate preparations by Belgrade against threatened NATO strikes.

Lacoste, speaking with RFE/RL on Tuesday:

"We have a buildup of [Yugoslav army] troops and equipment, tanks and anti-aircraft, and it's been ongoing for the last three weeks, particularly near General Jankovic Bridge [across a river in Kosovo about 5 km from the Macedonian border] and in a few other areas."

Lacoste was asked whether the bridge is on the route NATO forces would be expected to use to enter Kosovo, either to enforce a peace deal or to evacuate OSCE monitors ahead of NATO air strikes.

"That is absolutely right. And this very bridge was prepared with dynamite about 10 days ago so that it could be destroyed by the Yugoslav army if they wish to destroy it at some stage."

Lacoste told RFE/RL today that there had been no major fighting in Kosovo overnight or early today. But she said there has been a continuing Yugoslav army buildup around the Kosovo town of Mitrovica today. Lacoste said the UCK has threatened to attack any Yugoslav troops or convoys it encounters in the area.

Correspondents report that the Yugoslav army also has concentrated tanks, artillery and troops within Serbia just outside of Kosovo. British Defense Secretary George Robertson yesterday told NATO troops in Macedonia that NATO "action will be taken if the Serbs choose to use that force" in Kosovo.

But NATO Commander General Wesley Clark said the alliance will not decide what action to take until the conclusion of the peace talks due to resume in France on March 15.

Clark said NATO is prepared for three possibilities: air strikes against Yugoslav forces, the use of ground troops to protect unarmed OSCE monitors, or deployment of NATO peacekeepers if both sides accept a three-year interim autonomy plan for the province.