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Yugoslavia: Clinton Cites Wider Threat In Balkans

Washington, 23 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has again cited the threat of a wider war flaring in the Balkans unless Serbian aggression against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo Province is stopped.

As a special U.S. envoy tried again Monday to convince Yugoslav Federation President Slobodan Milosevic to accept an interim peace accord or face NATO alliance air strikes, Clinton said the possibility of a wider conflict tops a list of reasons why he and his foreign policy advisers believe the Balkans is in the U.S. national interest.

In remarks from the White House following a meeting with senior foreign policy advisers, Clinton said:

"Serbia's mounting aggression must be stopped. Since the adjournment of the peace talks in Paris less than a week ago, an estimated 30,000 more Kosovars have fled their homes. The number now exceeds more than a quarter of a million people, one out of every eight people in Kosovo. Many of them now are in neighboring Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, all of which could be quickly drawn into this conflict.

"So could other nations in the region, including Bosnia, where allied determination ended a terrible war, and our allies Greece and Turkey."

Clinton and other senior officials have been stressing the importance of the region to the U.S. in a series of statements to the U.S. Congress and the American people over the past two weeks. The president faces a Congress that is skeptical about the significance of Kosovo to U.S. interests.

The 100-member U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Clinton's Republican Party opponents, plans to debate an amendment to a Defense Department spending bill this week that could withhold funds for Kosovo operations unless Congress gives prior approval. The U.S. reportedly would contribute 4,000 troops to a proposed 28,000-troop NATO-led force that would implement a Kosovo peace plan. Congress is also concerned about the threat U.S. pilots might face in a bombing campaign.

However, Clinton said finding a peaceful solution for Kosovo is not only the right thing to do, but, "it is also the smart thing to do, very much in our national interest, if we are to leave a stable, peaceful and democratic Europe to our children." Clinton said the U.S. has a direct stake in European freedom, security and stability.

The president said it is clear that Serbian forces are engaged in further attacks on Kosovar civilians. He said these actions "are in clear violation of commitments Serbia made last October when we obtained the cease-fire agreement."

Clinton said that if President Milosevic, "continues to choose aggression over peace, NATO's military plans must continue to move forward." Those plans reportedly call for bombing of selected targets in Serbia. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on Monday that there are no plans for a NATO land offensive against the Serbs should air strikes be carried out.

The president said the goals of the international community, including Russia, are to stop the bloodshed in Kosovo and return a measure of self-government to the ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the provincial population.

Clinton said he had written a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin outlining developments in Kosovo and stressing past U.S.-Russian cooperation on the issue. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said Monday that Moscow is unalterably opposed to bombing the Serbs.

Primakov is due to arrive in Washington today (2000 Prague time) for a previously scheduled visit. He begins two days of talks with Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday.

White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the U.S. and NATO are well aware of Russian views on the issue.

"I think we have worked very closely and positively with the Russian government over the last weeks and months in sending a clear and united message to President Milosevic that the international community will not tolerate the further repression of the Kosovars, and that the path forward is the political settlement that was worked out and that the Kosovar Albanians have signed on to.

"I think it's well-known that the Russians do not support any NATO action, and that's something that has been discussed, but ultimately, NATO will have to act in what NATO's interests are."