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Yugoslavia: NATO Cautious About Russian Diplomacy With Belgrade

Brussels, 30 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana has called on Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to use his influence to convince President Slobodan Milosovic to stop "the humanitarian catastrophe" in Kosovo.

Solana was commenting yesterday on reports from Moscow that Primakov would travel to Belgrade today to seek an end to NATO air strikes, a cessation to the Serbian violence against ethnic Albanian civilians, and a return to the peace table.

Solana said he thought that Primakov has "an important job to do" in Belgrade. He added: "If he does it properly, for me it will be good news. He has to do it to convince President Milosevic to stop the killings. If that is the case, we would very happy."

Earlier NATO spokesman Jamie Shea had delivered a more qualified view of the reported Primakov mission. He said the 19-nation NATO alliance would welcome a mediating mission but only if Primakov can convince Milosevic to take his forces back to barracks, agree to a ceasefire, and to start political negotiations on the basis of the Rambouillet peace plan. He added: "I don't think it makes any sense for a Russian mission to go to Belgrade if it's not fully intending that those are the things they have to do."

Russia, traditionally sympathetic to their fellow Slav and Orthodox Serbs, is strongly opposed to the NATO air strikes aimed at deterring what western officials are now calling ethnic cleansing by Serb paramilitary and other forces in Kosovo.

Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic has accused the NATO alliance of causing civilian casualties in bombing and missile raids and destroying property.

Solana's statement came after a fifth day of NATO air strikes aimed at degrading the Yugoslav air defenses as a prelude to ordering strikes by slower-flying NATO aircraft on tanks and Serb military and paramilitary positions on Yugoslav territory.

He spoke after talks with Emma Bonino, the EU commissioner responsible for humanitarian affairs, who briefed him about the spillover of ethnic Albanian refugees into neighboring countries, which officials fear may have a destabilizing effect.

Bonino said 80,000 to 100,000 refugees have been forced into Albania, 4,000 into Bosnia-Herzegovina, but very few into Macedonia. Another 5,000 refugees have fled into Montenegro.

Air Commodore David Wilby, from NATO's military headquarters, said attacks on ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb-led forces appear to reflect an attempt by Milosevic to "realign his ethnic problems in Kosovo in one week."

He said Serb paramilitary forces are entering Kosovo towns and villages and terrifying the population. He said helicopters are also being used against the civil population.

He said the paramilitary forces are being followed by Yugoslav military and police who are "cynically issuing leaflets, saying it is now safe to leave the town or village."

He said seven villages were set on fire in the vicinity of Kosovo's second city of Pec, and three villages west of Pristina were also burning, in what appeared to be part of a scorched earth policy aimed at deterring refugees from returning to their homes.

Wilby said NATO officials have received a reliable report that Fehmi Agani, a member of the Kosovo Albanian delegation to the abortive Rambouillet, France, peace talks, was "executed" on Sunday after attending the funeral of another Kosovo Albanian.

He said four other ethnic Albanians were reportedly executed on Sunday.

Wilby also said that on Saturday night Serb police rounded up ethnic Albanian men throughout Pec and marched them off in an unknown direction.

He gave no information about the source of the unconfirmed reports.

Shea again said yesterday that the alliance has no plans to send ground troops into Kosovo. He said "it's not proven that by sending ground troops in, you could immediately improve the situation."

He reaffirmed NATO's policy that NATO ground troops will only be sent to Kosovo to implement a peace agreement between the Kosovo Albanians and the Belgrade government when and if such a deal can be struck. Shea said that OSCE monitors on the border with Kosovo report that ethnic Albanian refugees are arriving at the Albanian border at the rate of 4,000 an hour.

This was putting an enormous strain on Albania, the poorest country in Europe, which has appealed to the international community for urgent help. Relief agencies calculate there are now 280,000 displaced people within Albania, while over half a million have been displaced since fighting between Yugoslav security forces and the rebel ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) erupted a year ago. Shea, who said yesterday that the region faces the biggest humanitarian disaster since the end of the Second World War, called the figure "horrendous."

Shea said there are disturbing reports that ethnic Albanians seeking to cross into Albania are being asked by Serb border guards to pay 1,000 DM to cross the frontier, and are also being stripped of their passports, ID cards and other papers.

Shea said: "It's almost as if their identities are being cancelled out, as if they are being declared non-persons." He also said that "sweep operations" by Yugoslav army forces in Kosovo suggest there is a campaign to "ethnically re-engineer the make-up of Kosovo," particularly in the central parts of the province." By reshaping the political map, Milosevic was clearly hoping to achieve an eventual settlement more favorable to Belgrade.

He said: "We have reports that whole towns and villages including the second city of Pec have now been substantially destroyed. The term ethnic cleansing is now wholly appropriate."

Shea also said the international community needs to mobilize its resources urgently to help Albania, Macedonia and other countries cope with the refugee crisis.

The NATO spokesman again rejected criticism that the NATO air strikes prompted an intensification of Serb repression against the ethnic Albanian population, saying it is clear that the Belgrade regime was planning a heightened crackdown weeks ago.

Shea described the NATO air campaign as a "methodical, systematic, and progressive campaign aimed at stripping the Serb leadership of its military capabilities."