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  • Balkans Special Report

  •   NATO Bombs Serbia Into Darkness

    Jesse Jackson, Reuters
    Jesse L. Jackson and U.S. soldiers, from left, Steven M. Gonzales, Christopher J. Stone and Andrew A. Ramirez cross the Yugoslav border into Croatia on Sunday. (Reuters)
    By Daniel Williams
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, May 3, 1999; Page A1

    BELGRADE, May 2 – NATO airstrikes on major electrical power plants blacked out Belgrade and large areas of Serbia tonight, hours after Yugoslavia released three captured American soldiers in what it said was a goodwill gesture. The attack dramatically brought the allied air campaign home to millions of ordinary Serbs.

    A bomb hit the Obrenovac power plant in southwest Belgrade at about 9:45 p.m. (3:45 p.m. EDT), sending white and red sparks flying high into the air. Yugoslav officials said that Obrenovac supplies electricity to half the country.

    Residents and local media reported that power was out from the city of Nis in the south to Sombor near the Hungarian border in the north, affecting millions of people, according to news service reports. The blackout knocked state television and radio off the air, and there were no reports from the official Tanjug news agency for about two hours. When Tanjug came back, its first dispatch said a major part of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, was without power.

    "The electric power system of Serbia has collapsed," said Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio in the government of President Slobodan Milosevic. He said that electrical facilities in the cities of Nis and Kostalac also had been destroyed.

    The attack on the power plant came hours after three U.S. servicemen arrived at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany, where they had flown with Jesse L. Jackson, the American civil rights leader, who in weekend talks with Milosevic secured their release after 32 days in captivity.

    The three soldiers, who were handed over to Jackson here this morning and driven by bus to Croatia before boarding a U.S. C-9 medical evacuation plane, waved and smiled as they arrived in Germany. After saluting their commanding officers in the 1st Infantry Division, the soldiers were taken by helicopter to a U.S. medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, for physical and psychological tests. Following an initial screening, the soldiers were pronounced in good health by army physicians.

    NATO, meanwhile, said engine failure caused a U.S. F-16 fighter jet to crash west of Belgrade early today, disputing claims by Yugoslav authorities that the jet had been shot down by antiaircraft gunners. The jet's pilot was whisked to safety by NATO search-and-rescue forces two hours after the pre-dawn crash near the Bosnian border, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels.

    As the NATO bombing campaign moved through its 40th day, ethnic Albanian refugees continued to flow out of Kosovo, the southern Serbian province that is at the heart of the conflict. More than 5,000 refugees arrived in Macedonia today.

    Officials in the Serb-led Yugoslav government characterized the release of the three American soldiers as a goodwill gesture, and reacted angrily to tonight's bombing of the electrical power plant. "We have made a gesture of goodwill, and now we get this," said a Foreign Ministry official. "It makes you think that the West is just trying to make a point of how strong they are."

    Jackson said he went against the advice of the Clinton administration in embarking on his trip to Belgrade because he felt it was time "to build a bridge of trust, and someone had to break the deadlock."

    President Clinton applauded the release of three soldiers – Spec. Steven M. Gonzales, 22, of Huntsville, Tex.; Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; and Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich. – but rejected an appeal by Jackson to ease up on the NATO bombing campaign as a reciprocal goodwill gesture. Jackson also urged Clinton to open a dialogue with Belgrade by meeting directly with Milosevic to find a resolution to the crisis.

    "As we welcome our soldiers home, our thoughts also turn to the over 1 million Kosovars who are unable to go home because of the policies of the regime in Belgrade," Clinton said, who plans to meet the soldiers during a trip to Germany this week. "Today, we reaffirm our resolve to persevere until they, too, can return – with security and self-government."

    Jackson carried a letter from Milosevic to Clinton that laid out the Yugoslav position on the war and requested direct talks. The letter contained four points, Yugoslav officials said: the bombing must end and talks begin; the ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo can return under the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross; talks between ethnic Albanian and Serbian leaders would get underway, with foreign representatives playing a role as observers, but not mediators as they had before the airstrikes began March 24; and unarmed U.N. troops could enter Kosovo to monitor the agreements.

    Those conditions have already been rejected by the United States and its NATO allies as insufficient. NATO says the bombing campaign will continue until Milosevic pulls out his police and army forces from Kosovo, allows the free and unfettered return of all refugees and accepts an international military presence in Kosovo with NATO troops at its core. Belgrade has ruled out the presence of armed foreign soldiers as a violation of its sovereign territory.

    The NATO allies have pledged to escalate the bombing campaign now that weather in the Balkans is improving and more than twice the number of aircraft originally assembled for the bombing campaign are ready for action. NATO spokesman Shea said the large number of sorties and airstrikes carried out over the past three days would be increased as a way to intensify pressure on Milosevic to meet NATO's demands for a cease-fire.

    The heavier airstrikes have resulted in several accidents that killed civilians. In the latest, a passenger bus was destroyed Saturday as it was crossing a bridge targeted by a NATO warplane north of Pristina, the Kosovo capital. NATO military spokesman Col. Konrad Freytag said the pilot fired before the bus came into view and had no intention of harming civilians.

    While apologizing for the casualties, Freytag said the bridge was a legitimate military target. "When they allow public traffic over these bridges, they risk a lot of lives of their public citizens," Freytag said at a briefing in Belgium.

    The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry said 47 people were killed and 17 others seriously injured in the bombing.

    The sudden blackness in Belgrade following tonight's power plant bombing was followed by silence all over the city; no more bombs had fallen as of midnight. Some illumination was provided by a full moon and an occasional bus driving down a city street. Residents phoned each other to see whether their lights were out, but many of their telephones needed power to run and were dead.

    Matic, the Yugoslav minister, said that although Belgrade city hospitals have emergency generators, some dialysis and oxygen respirator machinery might not function properly without full power. Water supplies to several western districts of Belgrade were cut, the Reuters news agency reported.

    Over the weekend, NATO forces bombed a power station in Kosovo, shutting down a plant providing water to the area around Pristina. But tonight's attack was the most disruptive since the allied bombing campaign began.

    Even before the blackout, Belgrade citizens reacted coolly to the freeing of the American servicemen, with many saying they were skeptical it would lead to a peace settlement.

    Even those who favored the release qualified their comments, saying that releasing the Americans was a way to help improve Belgrade's standing in world public opinion.

    "Maybe it was wise to free them, if only to show them we are better than they are," said Anna Simonevic, a cosmetician lunching at a pizzeria just a block from where Yugoslav officials had turned the soldiers over to Jackson and his delegation.

    Her husband, Dragan, an army officer, seemed resigned rather than enthusiastic. "What should I say?" he asked. "Perhaps our leadership knows what it's doing and I believe they have selected the best moment."

    Their daughter Katerina, 16, focused on the humanitarian virtues of the move. "Maybe the soldiers have children," she said.

    At a nearby park, businessman Radisa Vilofijevic accepted the government contention that the Americans were victims of the war. "Our first concern is to stop the bombing," he said. "These soldiers were not involved, so it's a good move."

    But three teenagers idling at a nearby cafe thought Milosevic had made a mistake. "The war is not over. They should have been kept until the end," said Aleksander, a university business major who is awaiting a military call-up.

    Marina Dukic, a saleswoman of hair care products, thought the release was in bad taste, since it came on a day when reports reached Belgrade that NATO bombs had hit a passenger bus on a bridge in Kosovo. More than 40 people died, according to government officials. The figure could not be independently confirmed. The bomb sliced the bus in half, sending part of it into a ravine as the other half burned on the bridge.

    "They bomb and we release," said Dukic. "It's wrong. I'm not sure the Americans understand goodwill gestures."

    Dejan Perisic, a political science student, was harsher: "They should have been treated like the American in Somalia," he said, referring to the dead U.S. soldier who was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu following a battle between American peacekeepers and Somali forces in 1993.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic briefed reporters on the release of the Americans and on the bombing of the bus near Pristina, the Kosovo capital, as a film of the bus scene rolled on a screen nearby. Smoking bodies, twisted metal, dismembered corpses made for a dramatic, grisly backdrop to his talk. The release of the soldiers, he said, was a gesture "to demonstrate our commitment to reaching a long-lasting political solution."

    Vujovic said that in the end, Yugoslavia did not regard the soldiers primarily as combatants. "Their crime was to have crossed the boundary line," he said. Stone, Ramirez and Gonzales strayed across or close to the Yugoslav border with Macedonia while on duty with NATO troops in Macedonia. Macedonians said Yugoslav soldiers captured the Americans.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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