Washington, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen says about 100,000 ethnic Albanian men of fighting age are missing in Kosovo and he raised fears of large-scale killings by Serb forces in the war-torn province.
Cohen made the remark in a U.S. television interview (on CBS) Sunday. The defense secretary put it this way: "We are now seeing about 100,000 military age men missing. I think they are missing. They may have been murdered. We have had reports that as many as 4,600 have been executed. But I suspect it's far higher than that."
Cohen did not disclose his sources concerning the reports of killings -- intelligence matters are rarely discussed by U.S. officials in a public forum. Never before has a top U.S. official expressed fear of the possibility of such large-scale killings since the outbreak of the Kosovo crisis last year and the subsequent NATO bombing of Yugoslavia that began seven weeks ago.
Contacted by RFE/RL to further amplify the comments, a Defense Department spokesman said he stood by Cohen's remarks, adding "I would not second-guess the secretary." The White House had no immediate comments.
Cohen said NATO will carry out its campaign until its objectives are met. These aims have been repeatedly spelled out by President Bill Clinton and others as the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, the return of refugees, the stationing of an international peacekeeping force with a NATO core and restoration of autonomy for the province.
He said: "So we are going all out. The question becomes: Will you use ground force? There is no consensus within the alliance for a ground force, and that is the reason why we have sustained this coalition."
Cohen said NATO is going to intensify the air campaign and that each day Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is going to find himself "on the road to ruin -- militarily, economically and politically."
He said there are signs that NATO's campaign is working such as Serb military defections in the south, a reluctance on the part of the reserves to be called up to support the military and members of the Serbian elite moving their families into neighboring countries.
The defense secretary also said that recent civilian casualties in Kosovo may have been caused because the Serb forces were using Kosovar refugees as human shields.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said he also had reports from refugees that people were being used as human shields, although the claims were impossible to verify.
Pickering said in a separate television interview (NBC): "It is another tragic example of absolutely outrageous behavior on the part of Milosevic, trying to use innocent Albanians to protect his military forces."
Yugoslavia has dismissed the claims.
Cohen said: "For the Serbs to lament publicly about the deaths of refugees is almost tantamount to Adolf Eichmann (a Nazi official organizing the extermination of Jews during World War II) complaining about Allied forces bombing the crematoriums. These are crocodile tears coming out of mass killers, and I think we ought to look at it in exactly that fashion."
Cohen said Serb forces have so far displaced 1.5 million ethnic Albanian men, women and children in Kosovo. Before the Serb ethnic cleansing and the 7-week-old NATO air campaign, Kosovo's population was 1.9 million of which 90 percent was ethnic Albanian.
In an article published Sunday on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote jointly that if Milosevic accepted and began to implement their terms for an end to the conflict, "the NATO air campaign could end immediately."
The top U.S. and British diplomats said in the article: "For all his desperate bravado and state media propaganda, our military campaign is working. We are doing his killing machine more damage than he dares let the world see on television -- he wants the damage out of sight and out of mind."
Albright and Cook said they "deeply regret" NATO's bombing errors, including the recent bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade. But they added: "With thousands of missions being flown every week, perfection is unattainable."