Washington, 11 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has declared victory in NATO's air war against Yugoslavia and pledged to ensure the safe return of nearly one million Kosovar refugees to the battered Serbian province.
In a nationwide broadcast to the American people Thursday night (early Friday Prague time), Clinton said an unnecessary conflict has been brought to a just and honorable conclusion. He said NATO was forced to take a stand in the face of Serbian ethnic cleansing and brutality against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo.
Clinton said: "I can report to the American people that we have achieved a victory for a safer world, for our democratic values and for a stronger America."
Clinton paid tribute to Russian President Boris Yeltsin for helping to mediate the crisis through its special Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Russia was opposed to the air campaign from the start but it did not provide military aid to Belgrade.
Clinton said " We preserved our critically important partnership with Russia, thanks to President Yeltsin, who opposed our military effort but supported diplomacy to end the conflict on terms that met our conditions."
Clinton said that the "aggression" waged by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been contained and is being turned back. He spoke as Serbian forces began their pullout from Kosovo and NATO troops moved to the border to begin escorting the refugees back to their homes.
The president said 50,000 NATO-led peacekeepers--including 7,000 Americans--will ensure the safety of both ethnic Albanians and the Serbian citizens in Kosovo. He said the peacekeeping force will face dangers, but added that it will have the means and the mandate to protect itself.
Clinton also said as long as Milosevic remains in power the U.S. will not provide economic support for the reconstruction of Serbia, only humanitarian aid. He said the West is ready to help rebuild the rest of the Balkans.
Clinton said: "We must help to give the democracies of Southeastern Europe a path to a prosperous, shared future, a unifying magnet more powerful than the pull of hatred and destruction that has threatened to tear them apart. Our European partners must provide most of the resources for this effort. But it is in America's interest to do our part as well."
Clinton called upon Serbia to embrace democracy:
" A final challenge will be to encourage Serbia to join its neighbors in this historic journey to a peaceful, democratic, united Europe."
The 10-minute speech was solemn and punctuated by patriotic phrases. Clinton praised U.S. and allied military forces, declaring: "In Kosovo we did the right thing. We did it the right way. And we will finish the job."
Earlier Thursday, a senior U.S. State Department official said reconstruction of the Balkans would be costly.
Ambassador James Pardew, the State Department's Deputy Special Representative for Kosovo and Dayton Implementation, said in an interview with RFE/RL:
"I think the reconstruction costs in Kosovo will be enormous. A great deal of damage to the civil infrastructure has been done there and it's going to take a considerable amount of time and international resources to restore civilian life back to a reasonable level. We are hopeful that can be done as soon as possible. I am sure an assessment needs to be done by the international community and the (U.N.) secretary general's senior representatives to overseas civil issues, civil administration."
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington-based independent policy research institute, has estimated that the Kosovo peacekeeping operations could cost the United States between $2 billion and $3.5 billion a year.
The institute said the figure does not include all of the costs associated with providing humanitarian assistance to Kosovar refugees or rebuilding homes, factories, and other facilities damaged during the conflict.
Pardew said the biggest task for the international peacekeeping force is to enable the safe return of the refugees. Asked when the refugees could start crossing back to the province, Pardew told our correspondent:
"That's hard to say. We are encouraging the refugees to be cautious. There are major safety issues. We don't know how badly the infrastructure has been damaged. So as long as they are safe, housed and cared for in Albania, Macedonia, we need them to stay there until such time as kfor and the international community have gone into Kosovo. To make sure that it is safe for them to return, establish a safe and secure environment and make sure the infrastructure is ready for them to return. "
Pardew also reaffirmed the U.S. position against an independent Kosovo but suggested the issue could be re-examined in a few years.
He said: "What we are trying to do right now is to stop the killing, get the displaced people out of the mountains, get refugees home, create civil institutions which provide substantial self-government and autonomy and to do those things which basically return normal civilian life back to Kosovo. Our position really hasn't changed on the long-term status. It is yet to be determined. We don't favor independence but this is something that needs to be determined later."
The NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, he said, will face great challenges and potential danger.
Pardew said: "Of course this is going to be a dangerous environment in Kosovo for NATO. It is dangerous because mines have been laid, large numbers of people have been killed. There are tremendous number of weapons. That's why you need a robust and effective military force to go first into Kosovo, create a secure environment."