Washington, 4 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says NATO could stop its bombing of Yugoslavia if Belgrade makes a commitment to a fundamental policy change toward Kosovo, begins withdrawing its troops and accepts international peacekeepers in the province.
Clinton said at a White House news conference on Monday that Washington needs to be convinced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's decision to free three American soldiers was part of a basic shift of policy regarding the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.
It was the most detailed explanation by Clinton of what it would take to suspend the bombing since NATO began its air campaign more than a month ago.
Talking shortly before a scheduled meeting with Russian Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, Clinton emphasized that allied aims toward Kosovo remain unchanged.
He said these included the withdrawal of Serb forces, the return of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees to their homes, the stationing of international peacekeepers with NATO troops in its core and the establishment of autonomy for the ethnic Albanians.
Clinton thanked U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson for securing the release of three American soldiers during the weekend. The men were captured a month ago near the Macedonian-Yugoslav border.
Clinton said: "While we are very thankful for their release, let me be clear why the military operations must continue. Three Americans are home. Their families, their friends and the American people, whom they have served faithfully, must be grateful. But nearly one and a half million Kosovars are not home. "
Clinton also said he would welcome Russian and Ukrainian participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping force, noting that both nations have a historic affinity with the Serb people.
The president said: "I have always said from the very beginning, that the United States was open to a broad security force. We would welcome the United Nations' embrace of such a security force. We did -- that is exactly what we did in Bosnia. The Russians were there. I personally think it is quite important that the Russians, perhaps the Ukrainians, perhaps others who come from the Orthodox tradition, who have close ties to the Serbs, be a part of such a mission."
Clinton said he was not seeking a "total victory" against Yugoslavia -- only the minimum conditions so that the Kosovars could return home.
He said: "We want to be clear that all the ... Kosovars can come home; that the Serb security forces will leave; that they will -- they will -- we will have clear and unambiguous evidence that a withdrawal is under way; and that the other conditions I mentioned, in terms of self-government and especially the international security force, have been accepted, then we could have a bombing pause. " What is subject to negotiations is the exact make-up of the security force, Clinton said. He added that NATO must have a major role in it because otherwise the Kosovo Albanians would not agree to return home for fear of lack of protection.
Clinton said he does not relish the continuing humanitarian burdens on the people of Albania and Macedonia in coping with the refugees.
He said: "I do not relish the thought that inevitably some of these (NATO) bombs will go astray and some Serbian civilians, or some Kosovar civilians, could be killed. I am not trying to drag this out. But I am determined to pursue our policy until we know that we have a chance to do what has to be done in order for this to work as a practical matter, and in order finally, to clearly and unambiguously reverse the policy of ethnic and religious cleansing."
Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, recently conferred with Milosevic in Belgrade. Clinton said there is a lot to talk about with Chernomyrdin -- without compromising allied objectives on Kosovo - as Russia tries to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis.