NATO Warplanes Jolt Yugoslav Power Grid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 1999; Page A1
BELGRADE, May 24 – NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia's power grid left millions of people without electricity or water service today, bringing the war over Kosovo more directly into the lives of civilians across the country.
Three consecutive nights of air attacks caused extensive blackouts in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Nis, the three largest cities in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. In contrast with previous attacks on the power supply – in which allied warplanes triggered temporary outages by dropping carbon-fiber filaments that shorted out electrical lines – NATO forces this time struck at Serbia's five major power-transmission stations with high-explosive munitions, causing damage that could take weeks to repair.
Officials at the Pentagon and at NATO headquarters in Belgium said allied jets deliberately attacked the power grid, aiming to shut it down more completely and for longer periods than at any time previously in the two-month-old air campaign. U.S. officials estimated the attacks had shut off power to about 80 percent of Serbia.
Allied officials said the attacks were intended to disrupt operations by the Serb-led Yugoslav military in Kosovo, the focus of the conflict, and not target civilians. But by increasing the hardship of ordinary citizens, alliance leaders also appeared to be seeking to encourage public disaffection with the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Here in Belgrade, where rage against NATO during the initial days of the three-month-old bombing campaign has lapsed into weariness for many residents, the prospect of sustained blackouts brought renewed anger toward the alliance. Some cited the power outages as evidence that the genuine aim of NATO is not to expel Yugoslav troops and Serbian special police units from Kosovo, but to punish civilians and wreck the country.
The attacks also slashed water reserves by damaging pumps and cutting electricity to the few pumps that were still operative. Belgrade's water utility said that reserves of drinking water had been reduced to 8 percent, according to the Beta news agency, and that 60 percent of the city was without water service. The agency said authorities were trying to restore water to most city residents by midnight.
A NATO spokesman, Peter Daniel, insisted that allied warplanes were not targeting the Yugoslav water system or main power plants. Instead, he said, the attacks were aimed at "the transformers and the edges, so to speak, of the electricity-generating system."
Still, military officials confirmed that the objective of using conventional explosives against parts of the power grid was to cause longer-lasting disruptions of electrical service. "It's fair to say we made the decision that we're going to attack some elements of it in a way that's going to take it down for longer than it would have been," said a senior officer at the Pentagon.
By focusing the attacks more on distribution lines than on main production components, the officer said, the damage should take weeks, not years to repair. He said Yugoslav authorities have access to "auxiliary power supplies for many of these facilities," but he added that the latest attacks should prove more challenging for the Yugoslav military than the brief outages caused by the filament drops.
That weapon is a highly classified munition that throws out clusters of bomblets packed with chemically treated strands that act like lightning when they touch an electrical structure, causing widespread outages but no permanent damage.
The strikes have been limited thus far to electrical facilities in Serbia proper, the Pentagon officer said, but NATO commanders are understood to be planning to extend the attacks to Kosovo – a Serbian province from which Belgrade government forces have driven hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians in a drive to crush an independence movement there.
A U.N. humanitarian team that has visited Kosovo said today that it gathered convincing evidence of widespread expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians, the Reuters news service reported. "In one word – it is pretty revolting," said a member of the team, Sergio Vieira de Mello. "We have seen enough evidence and heard enough testimony to confirm that indeed there has been an attempt at displacing internally and externally a shocking number of civilians."
NATO officials said the new attacks on the electrical system are part of the alliances' two-track strategy to step up the pressures on the military front while pressing ahead with diplomatic contacts designed to bring about a political settlement.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott left Washington for Moscow today and a new round of talks with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister who is Russia's special envoy on the Balkans. If the Moscow discussions show some progress toward resolution of the crisis, Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari plan to visit Belgrade for talks with Milosevic.
Striking at Yugoslav targets around the clock despite poor weather, NATO warplanes flew 554 sorties in the 24-hour period through Monday, with the brunt of the attacks aimed at power plants, ammunition dumps and broadcast relay stations. One of the more devastating strikes shut down the the Kostolac power generating plant, 20 miles east of Belgrade.
NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, has insisted that his top priority now is to destroy the Yugoslav Third Army or chase it out of Kosovo, but senior allied military officials acknowledged that they also want to damage the quality of everyday life so that suffering citizens will start questioning the intransigence of their political leadership.
Electricity was not out everywhere in Belgrade. The government-sponsored midday rock concert – a daily protest of the NATO bombing that was attended by just a few dozen people today – was fully amplified. In some neighborhoods, lights flicked on and off with the unpredictable frequency of the air raid sirens that now echo across Belgrade several times a day. Most electric street car service was canceled.
But the darkness added to the gloom of another in a succession of cool and rainy days here. Residents of apartment buildings climbed flights of stairs in darkness, and many people complained of spoiled food and accumulating laundry. Bread lines formed early in the morning as many bakeries were closed.
"It's a big leap towards hurting the civilian population, especially the water," said Aleksa Djilas, a historian. "I have two small children, and it's very difficult."
Political opposition leaders in Serbia have said the NATO bombing, rather than focusing blame on Milosevic, has reinforced the sense among many Serbs that they are being unfairly targetted.
"As long as the bombing goes on, Milosevic will be absolved and rage will be directed at NATO," said Dusan Mihajlovic, leader of the New Democracy Party, which once proposed that Yugoslavia join NATO. "Citizens of Belgrade do not consider themselves responsible for what happened in Kosovo. . . . For the majority of the population, this is an absurd situation they cannot explain to themselves."
In a signal that the NATO bombing campaign is having some effect on civilian morale in Serbia, protesters led by angry Yugoslav army reservists back from Kosovo have taken to the streets of the southern town of Krusevac for the second straight day, refusing to return to the province and demanding that no more soldiers from their region be sent there, according to Yugoslav media and other reports from the area. The demonstrations, while peaceful and relatively isolated so far, are the first of their kind to be carried on in public anywhere in Serbia.
Several hundred protesters reportedly took part in the Krusevac protest today, a day after a similar demonstration drew several thousand people, according to reports from the region. Some public unrest was reported last week in the Krusevac region – a part of Serbia that has seen heavy call-ups of reserves for duty in Kosovo – but it apparently quieted for several days before flaring up again over the weekend.
Today's protest reportedly involved parents and relatives of reservists who have not returned from Kosovo on scheduled leaves. Another 1,000 reservists are scheduled to report to their barracks in Krusevac on Tuesday, and the local military commander warned their families not to accompany them.
In addition to the gatherings in Krusevac, Yugoslav media reported that hundreds of reservists in the nearby smaller town of Aleksandrovac, who also had staged demonstrations last week, attempted to join the protesters in Krusevac but were stopped by police.
Sent to Kosovo when NATO bombing began, the reservists initially returned to Krusevac and other nearby towns last week demanding to be demobilized. Yugoslav officials saw the protests as serious enough to dispatch Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Yugoslav Third Army, to calm the crowds.
After talks with the demonstrators, Pavkovic declared the reservists blameless and said their tours of duty in Kosovo were essentially over anyway, according to independent Yugoslav media reports. But the reservists and their families apparently concluded over the weekend that the government would not keep its pledges and would call them up again for service in Kosovo, sparking the new round of protests.
Staff writer Bradley Graham in Washington and correspondent William Drozdiak in Brussels contributed to this report.
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