Serbs Warned Of NATO Strikes
By Bradley Graham
With peace talks stalled, the United States issued loud warnings yesterday that NATO is preparing airstrikes against Serbian forces in and around the province of Kosovo and was reported to be pressing NATO allies to accept a much quicker escalation of military action than previously planned.
International mediators in Paris prepared to shut down the negotiations that were intended to end a year of conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, staging a one-sided signing ceremony that formalized agreement to the peace terms by the Kosovar Albanians but also dramatized the Serb refusal to embrace them. Diplomats close to the process said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, will be given another deadline of up to a week to sign the proposed accord, and international mediators may make further attempts to meet with him in Belgrade this weekend. [Details, Page A21]
In the event of an attack against Milosevic's forces, U.S. officials were urging allies to allow for an uninterrupted transition from an initial wave of cruise missile and precision bombing into a larger assault by American and European warplanes, according to American and European sources. A Serbian military buildup in the Kosovo region has increased U.S. concerns that Milosevic could respond to NATO bombardment by going on the offensive, the sources said. In that event, U.S. officials want to ensure that NATO forces can avoid any pause and expand rapidly into a sustained, large-scale attack.
After five months of threats of NATO military action aimed at compelling Milosevic to make peace in Kosovo, U.S. officials indicated that, this time, final preparations are underway for bombing Yugoslav military targets. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters the crisis over Kosovo has entered a "decisive phase." And Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright warned that NATO is ready to act in the face of Milosevic's refusal to settle.
Members of Congress continued to express skepticism about the military plan, even after President Clinton's senior national security advisers traveled to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers. Many Republicans and some Democrats complained that too many questions remain unanswered about the possibility of NATO airstrikes, which could be followed by a commitment of U.S. ground forces to a peacekeeping operation.
Expressing "significant reservations" about the administration's plans, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) arranged for a meeting with Clinton today and moved to schedule debate Monday on a bill that would bar use of funds to send U.S. troops into Kosovo until the operation is authorized by Congress.
Despite the misgivings, defense officials said Serbian targets already have been selected. Six U.S. warships armed with long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles were on alert in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas and about 200 American attack and support jets were standing by in a NATO force of 400 aircraft.
But U.S. officials also noted that barring any provocation by Serbian forces, NATO would be unlikely to attack before the 1,600 unarmed international observers in Kosovo are evacuated. Also expected to evacuate before any attacks would be U.S. and European diplomats in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia and of Serbia, which with tiny Montenegro makes up the Yugoslav federation.
In testimony on Capitol Hill, members of the Joint Chiefs warned that airstrikes would be dangerous. They said Yugoslavia's extensive network of Soviet-made air defense radars and mobile anti-aircraft missile launchers, its hilly terrain and foggy weather raise risks that NATO aircraft might be downed.
Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff who commanded U.S. airstrikes over Bosnia in 1995, called the air defense network that allied forces would encounter this time "two or three times" more substantive.
"There is a distinct possibility we will lose aircraft in trying to penetrate those defenses," the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under the threat of NATO airstrikes last autumn, Milosevic agreed to enter peace talks and withdraw thousands of Serbian troops that were in Kosovo suppressing a separatist guerrilla war by ethnic Albanian rebels. But in recent weeks, as the peace talks have stalled, Serbian forces in and around the province have swelled again to more than 40,000, on top of the more than 12,000 Serbian police in the embattled province.
The buildup is seen by U.S. officials as a strong indication that Milosevic intends to lash out if attacked. NATO's original three-phase attack plan involved a pause after the first phase to give Milosevic time to reconsider his predicament.
NATO governments approved an "activation order" only for the first phase of the plan last October, effectively handing NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana the keys to start the airstrikes. This order remains in effect, officials said. But the United States has tried to win additional NATO approval for the second and third phases of the attack plan as well.
"If this begins, we want to make sure everyone understands we may need to continue to press to the end," a senior administration official said. "We may not be able to stop and take a lot of time to debate whether we continue."
"One of the things the Americans have been pressing us to do is hand Solana the keys now so we can skip nimbly from phase one to phase two," said a European diplomat familiar with the deliberations.
Pentagon officials have never liked the notion of a pause, worrying that any stop in the bombing after an initial set of strikes would risk halting the operation altogether short of its objectives.
"Tactically, we would recommend against a pause because it opens the door to inertia," said a senior military officer. "We've always wanted the operation to appear to flow seamlessly from start to finish."
The U.S. argument is that such an uninterrupted series of strikes would both increase the pressure on Milosevic and minimize chances for Albanian rebels to mount their own offensive under the cover of allied military action.
"By getting it over more quickly and delivering a heavier blow, the point is that Milosevic would have a harder time riding it out and the Albanian rebels would have less opportunity to try to take advantage of the bombing," said one NATO diplomat familiar with U.S. thinking. "It also would allow less time for Russia and others opposed to military action to organize resistance."
Among the leading NATO members, France has continued to argue for a 48-hour pause, according to U.S. officials. But the issue is due to be discussed today at a meeting of NATO's senior political group, the North Atlantic Council. A senior administration official said last night that the United States expects a consensus to emerge from the meeting that would permit a rapid move from phase one to phases two and three of the attack plan.
Exactly what the objectives of the airstrikes would be have yet to be articulated by the administration. In the past -- notably in trying to influence President Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- the Pentagon has argued against using military action to try to compel behavior of a foreign power, since there is little guarantee of achieving such an end. Instead, U.S. commanders have preferred to frame the objective in terms of reducing an enemy's military power.
In the case of Milosevic, defense officials said airstrikes would indeed be aimed at weakening the ability of Yugoslav forces to attack Albanian rebels. But the strikes also clearly would be aborted if Milosevic agreed to sign the peace agreement.
At least one U.S. military chief seemed still to have more questions than answers about the purpose and potential consequences of the military action being considered.
"The bottom-line question that needs to be resolved is, would the strikes and will the strikes achieve an end?" said Gen. Charles Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant, in Senate testimony. "What is that end? What happens if they [the Serbs] do not come to the table?"
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company