U.S., Allies Launch Air Attack On Yugoslav Military Targets
By Barton Gellman
It was two hours after sunset in Belgrade, at 1:51 p.m. EST, when NATO commenced its attempt to slow the course of war by means of heavy bombardment. After 50 years of staring down the Soviet Union and its allies, amid a troubled half-centenary debate on its unity and relevance, the Atlantic Alliance attacked a sovereign state for the first time.
Thirteen of NATO's 19 members flung their armed services against Milosevic, who responded by declaring a state of war and vowing never to accept the peace plan's call for NATO troops to be deployed in Kosovo. Seeking to underline their unity, NATO dubbed the operation Allied Force, deflecting strong protests from Russia as well as questions of legality raised by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Manned aircraft, including the $2 billion B-2 stealth bomber in its long-deferred combat debut, followed an opening salvo of cruise missiles launched from B-52 bombers, two U.S. surface warships and a pair of American and British submarines. With most NATO aircraft flying above the range of the principal Yugoslav air defenses, Belgrade did not loose the expected barrage of surface-to-air missiles. At least a dozen MiG-29 interceptors rose instead to challenge NATO's air armada and Pentagon officials said two of the interceptors were shot down, one by a Dutch pilot and one by Americans.
The operation's civilian and military leaders disclosed little about their targets, save that they included air defenses, Serbian command and control facilities and "the military infrastructure that President Milosevic and his forces are using to repress and kill innocent people," as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen put it at the Pentagon. Serbian officials reported strikes at some 40 sites across the country, with targets ranging from an airfield near Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital in the north, to air bases in Kosovo and the adjacent Yugoslav republic of Montenegro and an aircraft factory in the town of Pancevo.
"President [Slobodan] Milosevic, who over the past decade started the terrible wars against Croatia and Bosnia, has again chosen aggression over peace," President Clinton said in brief afternoon remarks. Last night, in an address to the nation, he added, "We act to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg in the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results."
Clinton and his senior advisers harked repeatedly back to images of World War II and Nazism to give moral weight to the bombing. The president compared Milosevic explicitly to Hitler on Tuesday, and last night included such language as "dictator" and "genocide in the heart of Europe" to describe the Serbian nationalist's deeds. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called Milosevic "cruel and evil," and her spokesman, James P. Rubin, described his government as "illegitimate."
But as during previous encounters with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by the Clinton and Bush administrations, those rhetorical flights obscured war aims that stopped well short of the unconditional surrender and change of government that Americans associate with the last world war.
NATO's political leadership said little about what Milosevic would have to do to stop the bombing, but Washington made clear he need not sign the American-drafted peace plan for Kosovo whose rejection was NATO's declared ground for war. In an apparent invitation to bargain, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told reporters Milosevic must accept the "framework" of the agreement, particularly its provision for armed NATO peacekeepers, but "I'm not saying . . . there couldn't be discrete changes if they were acceptable to the Kosovars."
Milosevic, he said, would also have to ensure a "lull, pause, cessation" in his army's offensive in Kosovo designed to put down a year-long secessionist revolt by the province's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.
American officials, who provided the bulk of the military force yesterday, alluded to two circumstances in which they would escalate their use of violence.
Clinton, enunciating carefully, said that "we will deliver a forceful response" should Milosevic intensify the killing in Kosovo or attack NATO forces or their allies elsewhere. Rubin, reading from a prepared text, declared: "With respect to neighboring countries, Milosevic is well aware that if he attempts to broaden or escalate further the conflict, he will face extremely serious consequences."
Rubin repeated the words "extremely serious" three more times, which other officials said was meant to convey a veiled threat to unseat Milosevic from power.
Berger also elaborated on warnings that Kosovo might succeed in wresting its independence from Serbia -- which Milosevic and, to a lesser degree, NATO oppose.
Led by the United States, NATO is demanding that Milosevic accept a force of 28,000 armed peacekeeping troops, 4,000 of them American, as part of a Kosovo accord. The American-drafted peace plan would grant self-rule to Kosovo while maintaining it as a province of Serbia for at least another three years.
The rebel leadership accepted the American proposal last week, seeking to end the guerrilla war in which 2,000 Kosovars have died and 400,000 have been driven from their homes.
With bombers already in the air, Milosevic called on his people to defend the country "by all means, and to the same degree it is attacked." He restated his openness to a political pact but repeated categorical objections to what he described as occupation of Kosovo by foreign military forces.
"It is not only Kosovo that is at stake, although Kosovo is of great importance to us," he said. "The freedom of the entire country is at stake [because] Kosovo would represent only a door through which foreign troops would enter and jeopardize these highest values."
Russia gave fresh vent to its outrage at the impending bombardment, with President Boris Yeltsin withdrawing his ambassador to NATO. The Russian indignation was first displayed Tuesday, when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov canceled talks scheduled in Washington and turned his aircraft around in mid-air over the Atlantic..
Russia's legal argument, endorsed by China, holds that NATO's claim to be safeguarding "international peace and security," as permitted under the United Nations Charter, is forbidden to regional alliances without specific authority from the Security Council. At the United Nations, acting U.S. Ambassador A. Peter Burleigh said the council gave NATO that authority in October when it called for a cease-fire in Kosovo under the Council's Chapter VII, or warmaking, authority.
"Russia demands an immediate cessation of this unacceptable aggression," Ambassador Sergei Lavrov said in an urgent council meeting last night. But Russia and China made little headway among the other 13 members of the council. Three of the five members with veto power over resolutions -- the United States, Britain and France -- are participants in the NATO bombing.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan straddled his competing wishes to uphold the world body's legal preeminence, to put a stop to Serbian aggression and to avoid any new controversy with Washington. "It is indeed tragic that diplomacy has failed, but there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace," he said.
He added that the Security Council retains "primary responsibility" for maintaining peace and security and "should be involved in any decision to resort to the use of force."
After what American officials described as a tense and difficult 45 minutes on the telephone with Clinton, Yeltsin broadcast an agitated plea against the bombing and denounced it in strong terms when it began. "This is in fact NATO's attempt to enter the 21st century as global policeman," he said in a written statement from the Kremlin. "Russia will never agree to it."
Berger said Clinton told Yeltsin there is too much at stake in U.S.-Russian ties to permit them to deteriorate over the Balkans. "We cannot let Milosevic dictate our relationship," Clinton said.
Administration officials said they saw no chance of direct Russian military intervention but said they could not rule out Russian intelligence or material assistance to the Belgrade government. Asked about such assistance in his Pentagon news conference, Cohen said only, "We hope that that won't be the case."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart made a point of noting "there is an international embargo that is in place against Serbia, done by the U.N. Security Council, and we expect all members to respect that."
American B-2 bombers, whose radar-evading technologies make them by far the most expensive in the world, made their combat debut after being held back from eight years of intermittent bombing in Iraq.
Pentagon officials disclosed nothing about the two bombers' mission or performance, but they could not have begun the long flight from Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base much after midnight Tuesday.
The first visible sign of the coming strike was a flight of eight B-52s, the aging workhorses of the U.S. bomber fleet, that lumbered into the air as dawn broke over Gloucestershire, England. Each carried 40,000 pounds of explosive warheads on 20 cruise missiles, designed for launch from well beyond the reach of Yugoslav air defenses.
At Aviano Air Base in Italy, where more than a third of NATO's air armada had gathered, some 66 warplanes -- including stealthy F-117A attack planes, A-10 anti-armor jets, F-16 and Canadian CF-18 strike fighters and assorted jammers and airborne command posts -- took off at sundown in an openly telegraphed attack.
Maj. Scott R. Vadnais, shouting to be heard by reporters brought close to the scream of afterburners, called it a "significant package" of warplanes.
Aboard the cruiser USS Philippine Sea, one of two American vessels that joined the British submarine HMS Splendid in launching missiles, the Tomahawks did not burst from their launchers until 6:50 p.m. local time [12:50 p.m. EST] for the short flight skimming the Adriatic Sea into Serbia.
"This is a combat situation," Capt. Robert D. Jenkins III told reporters aboard ship. "Unfortunately some members of the force that we are targeting may die."
In a speech Tuesday, Clinton referred at least three times to Kosovo as a country. But Rubin denied yesterday that there was any softening of U.S. opposition to statehood for Kosovo.
"We haven't changed our view about independence," Rubin said, intimating that Clinton had erred. "And just because you can find the word 'country' and Kosovo in the same paragraph doesn't mean we have."
After the first explosions in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital and the command center of Yugoslav army and interior ministry forces, witnesses reported that the city went entirely dark.
It was not clear whether this reflected bomb damage or Yugoslav precautions. U.S. Air Force doctrine often calls for destruction of transformer stations and other key nodes of electric power transmission used by enemy air defenses.
Unconfirmed Yugoslav army reports said that an unspecified number of women and children died when the allies bombed military housing; the state news agency, Tanjug, said civilians were wounded in Kursumlija.
Correspondents David Hoffman in Moscow, R. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Finn in Belgrade, John M. Goshko at the United Nations, Karl Vick at Italy's Aviano Air Base, William Drozdiak in Brussels and Charles Trueheart in Paris; and staff writers John F. Harris and Dana Priest and researcher Nathan Abse in Washington contributed to this report.
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