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  •   Belgrade Rebuffs Final U.S. Warning

    By R. Jeffrey Smith
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Page A01

    BELGRADE, March 22 –– Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to back down today from his military offensive in Kosovo as he met with U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke for what Clinton administration officials said is his last chance to avert a punishing NATO aerial assault against Yugoslav military forces.

    With a drive by Yugoslav army and Serbian Interior Ministry police units against Kosovo Albanian separatists in its third day, NATO allies agreed to broaden the scope and intensity of a threatened bombing campaign if the Belgrade government does not end the assault and agree to a Western autonomy plan for the Serbian province.

    "If President Milosevic continues to choose aggression over peace, NATO's military plans must continue to move forward," President Clinton told reporters on the White House lawn. "Our objective in Kosovo remains clear: to stop the killing and achieve a durable peace that restores Kosovars to self-government."

    Holbrooke met with Milosevic for four hours tonight before going to the U.S. Embassy here, where he reported to administration officials in Washington. Afterward, he told reporters here: "I would be misleading you if I suggested that today's talks resulted in any significant change in the situation."

    Holbrooke noted that the fact the talks took place against the backdrop of intensified violence in Kosovo made it "extraordinarily difficult to pursue peace." The White House had said the two men would confer again early Tuesday by phone or in person, but Holbrooke did not suggest what might be left to discuss.

    Administration officials said Holbrooke had not tried to bargain with Milosevic and was not considering any counterproposals from the Yugoslav leader. "We are willing to give him a very brief period of time to see if there's a way to get him to where we want," one administration official said. "This is not about changing the bottom line."

    U.S. and European diplomats said Holbrooke was given very limited scope to negotiate with Milosevic; his mission is to induce Milosevic to halt the offensive in Kosovo and to sign the peace accord. They said that virtually the only flexibility Holbrooke can extend to Milosevic is in the naming of an international force that would police any agreement.

    NATO military sources said that barring a last-minute agreement, allied warships in the Adriatic Sea could initiate military action as early as Tuesday night with cruise missile attacks against Yugoslav air defense installations. Pentagon officials said the bombardment would quickly escalate into attacks by NATO warplanes on Yugoslav tanks and troops within Kosovo.

    "In Kosovo, the objective would be to reduce Milosevic's ability to continue assaults on the Kosovars," said one senior Pentagon official. "That means [attacking] boots-on-the-ground military forces in Kosovo."

    Once NATO is assured of air superiority over Yugoslavia, alliance sources said, 430 allied warplanes from bases in Italy and Britain would begin attacking targets that include army and air force bases and command and control centers, in addition to concentrations of armor in and around Kosovo.

    U.S. and European officials are set to make public the military objectives of the bombing within the next few days. Pentagon officials and others have argued that military force cannot be used to compel Milosevic to sign a peace accord but must have a militarily achieveable end point. Instead, said one official, the military objective will be to "prevent repression of the Kosovar people and to prevent the continuing human strife."

    Officials said the end point will come when Milosevic orders his troops to cease their aggression against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo and agrees to pull back his troops to levels he agreed to last October but has since exceeded. That means thousands of Yugoslav army troops and Serbian special police units will have to leave Kosovo -- a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

    It is unclear, said one European official, how Milosevic would then be forced back to the bargaining table if he were to agree to stop the fighting and reduce troop levels. "No one has figured that out yet," the official said.

    Holbrooke, who negotiated a cease-fire in Kosovo with Milosevic under threat of NATO airstrikes last October, flew here from NATO headquarters in Brussels, where alliance officials approved the plan for bombing raids and missile strikes. Holbrooke said he is convinced that any doubts about military intervention among some European allies had been erased and that punitive attacks now had full support of all of NATO's 19 member countries.

    "The idea that there is disunity is wrong," Holbrooke said. "There were some differences, but they're very small, and they're virtually gone."

    Back in Washington, however, Republicans again criticized Clinton's Kosovo policy as the Senate opened a debate on whether to demand that any airstrikes must first win congressional approval. "We're now picking sides in a civil war where the United States' interests are not clear," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said as the debate got underway. "Before we go bombing sovereign nations, we ought to have a plan."

    The October cease-fire collapsed completely after the the Belgrade government last week rejected the Western peace plan and launched a new offensive in the central Drenica region of Kosovo, attacking dozens of villages, burning homes and sending thousands of civilians fleeing. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported today that the number of displaced people in the province had grown to 240,000, including about 60,000 left homeless in the last three weeks, approaching levels of last October.

    As the talks with Holbrooke began, Milosevic issued a defiant statement assailing NATO's airstrike threat and defended his government's offensive against ethnic Albanian separatist rebels fighting to win independence for Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

    In addition to defending the crackdown, the statement, contained in a letter from Milosevic to the British and French foreign ministers, warned NATO that the Yugoslav armed forces were prepared to defend the country against any attack.

    "You say that large movements of our security forces are a matter of great concern," Milosevic said. "If you think they are a matter of concern for the separatists, who would like to take away part of the territory of Serbia and Yugoslavia, they of course should be concerned. If you have in mind some possible aggressors outside of Yugoslavia, this should be a matter of concern to them, too."

    Milosevic added: "Is it really possible for a normal person to think that somebody who is being threatened will not show the intention to defend himself?"

    Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic also issued a defiant statement, and dozens of tanks and busloads of Interior Ministry troops were seen moving today toward Kosovo from central Serbia.

    The few Westerners remaining in Kosovo, meanwhile, reported increased harassment by Serbs throughout the province. Many people with U.S. passports have been threatened with personal attack if NATO attacks Yugoslavia, and several humanitarian aid workers reported that food convoys were blocked and at least one driver was beaten.

    "The odds are against" gaining Milosevic's acceptance of the peace deal, a senior U.S. official said on condition he not be named. But he cautioned against ruling out an agreement, noting that the current threat of airstrikes is more serious than any Milosevic has confronted so far in the year-long Kosovo crisis.

    Under terms of the Western-drafted agreement, which was signed last week by leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, the province would gain substantial political autonomy within Serbia. But Milosevic has objected to a provision requiring that up to 28,000 NATO-led troops be deployed in Kosovo to enforce the agreement.

    NATO officials said Holbrooke would demand that Milosevic agree to an immediate cease-fire and halt the current offensive. In addition, the Yugoslav leader will have to sign or initial the peace accord, and he will have to accept in principle that the peacekeeping force can enter Kosovo to supervise terms of the agreement.

    "This is the last effort to bring peace to Kosovo without the need to use military force," NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said. "We think that this is the moment of truth. NATO is ready to act if this last effort is a failure."

    Holbrooke said there was no question of his getting dragged into prolonged negotiations with Milosevic while Yugoslav and Serbian forces continue to attack ethnic Albanian villages.

    NATO military sources said that since Friday, government security forces may have overrun as many as three of seven key strongholds of the rebel's main force, the Kosovo Liberation Army. They said Milosevic clearly was hoping to deliver a knock-out blow to the guerrillas within the week before considering calling off the offensive hopes of averting airstrikes.

    But NATO commanders said they are now prepared to accelerate and enlarge the scope of their bombing campaign. "If required, we will strike in a swift and severe fashion," said Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander.

    Gen. Klaus Naumann, the German general who is chief of NATO's military committee, said Milosevic is "seriously mistaken" if he believes the alliance will engage simply in pinprick strikes and then sit back awaiting a more conciliatory response. "The bombing will go on as long as Milosevic wants us to continue; he has to blink, and he has to give in and accept the interim settlement," Naumann said. "We have a very substantial and detailed plan for such an air campaign, which can be rather long and protracted."

    When NATO members gave Solana power to authorize airstrikes on Jan. 30, the intention was to launch limited raids that would last 48 hours, followed by a pause to allow Milosevic to reconsider. The plan now is to wage an intensive bombing campaign that would include a wider range of targets and last much longer to inflict serious harm to Yugoslavia's military infrastructure.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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