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  •   NATO Admits Bombing Kosovo Rebels

    Hashim Thaci,R
    Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaqi speaks to an elderly ethnic Albanian woman from Kosovo on May 22. (Reuters)
    By Steven Pearlstein
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, May 23, 1999; Page A27

    BRUSSELS, May 22 – NATO acknowledged today that its planes on Friday bombed a barracks in Kosovo used by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Planners were unaware that retreating Yugoslav forces had abandoned the site to the ethnic Albanian rebels weeks ago, NATO officials said.

    European monitors in Albania, where some of the victims were taken, said one rebel was killed and 15 wounded in the attack on the stronghold at Kosare, near Kosovo's border with Albania. The KLA said that seven died and 25 were wounded.

    "If we had known that it had been captured by the KLA, then it would have been taken off the target list," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea. NATO and the KLA, though not formal allies, are both fighting the Serb-led Yugoslav government.

    The KLA's control of the mountain outpost was no secret. On May 2, a Reuters reporter and television crew visited the site and filed reports.

    KLA leader Hashim Thaqi was conciliatory, calling the bombing a "technical mistake." He told Associated Press Television News that despite the error, "the NATO airstrikes must continue, even more intensified."

    NATO officials also said the decision to bomb a prison complex in the town of Istok Friday was based on information that the facility was no longer being used as a prison but as a command center for Serbian military forces in Kosovo.

    The prison held ethnic Albanian convicts, some of them political prisoners. The attack killed 19 people, most of them inmates, Yugoslav officials said Friday.

    "This complex was used by military forces of the Serb army and special police for a long time as a staging area," said Col. Konrad Freytag of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. "The target list carried this prison as unused."

    In other developments, the flow of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to Macedonia surged today, as more than 5,000 refugees crossed the border, many telling stories of desperate living conditions and persecution by Serbian police and paramilitary forces. It was the largest daily exodus in nearly three weeks.

    Separately, about 500 ethnic Albanian men who had been separated from their families and imprisoned by Serbian security forces were released and ordered across the border into Albania. They said they were among approximately 2,000 men released from Smrekovnice prison near the northern Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

    In Washington, U.S. government sources said a nongovernmental humanitarian organization would begin airdropping food within days to displaced ethnic Albanians still in Kosovo.

    The humanitarian group, which the officials did not name, plans to send slow-moving cargo planes over Kosovo. It is calculating that Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces will refrain from shooting them down because of the risk of causing international outrage.

    Allied military officials have refused to authorize airdrops of food to the estimated hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who have fled their homes but are still in Kosovo, a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. Many are believed to be living in the woods in increasingly desperate straits.

    Although such high-altitude drops proved successful in Bosnia during the conflict there, military officials believe it would be a highly risky operation in Kosovo, where the Yugoslavs maintain a functioning air defense system.

    NATO's top commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, will meet with alliance ambassadors here Wednesday to present complex plans for deploying tens of thousands of additional alliance troops to the Balkans and entering Kosovo as peacekeepers.

    Clark said in an interview that NATO hopes to persuade ethnic Albanian refugees to wait for weeks or months before returning to Kosovo, so the alliance has time to clear mined roads, remove booby traps, purify water and finish rounding up combatants.

    But the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees, most of whom are in Albania and Macedonia, may well insist on entering Kosovo simultaneously with the troops, he said.

    "Holding refugees back awhile is still being considered, but it may not be possible," Clark said at his headquarters in Mons, Belgium. "This is going to be a tough, difficult, dirty job."

    The alliance would use hundreds of demolition experts, engineers and military police to keep order until an international police force can be put in place, Clark said.

    Complicating NATO's job is uncertainty over whether its troops would move in before the fighting in Kosovo ends. The White House would prefer to send in peacekeepers after a diplomatic settlement is reached with Belgrade.

    Over the past month, however, President Clinton and other NATO political leaders have left open the possibility that NATO troops might enter Kosovo without a peace agreement after Yugoslav forces in the province were wiped out through airstrikes.

    The new plan to deploy up to 50,000 NATO peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, nearly double the 28,000 originally anticipated, would be suited for the more difficult task of occupying Kosovo in such a "semi-permissive" environment.

    But time may be running short for that option. On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon acknowledged that airstrikes alone may not ensure an end to the conflict in Kosovo before winter.

    At the request of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clark's staff also is finalizing options for what he calls a "forced entry" into Kosovo. These options, which he declined to discuss, include all scenarios in which the Belgrade government does not allow armed NATO troops into Kosovo.

    Greece, a NATO member that has been lukewarm about the strikes on Yugoslavia, may make it difficult to send peacekeeping troops to a staging area in Macedonia as quickly as the rest of the alliance would like.

    The Greek government has banned NATO troop travel through Greece for two weeks beginning June 4, election season for the European Parliament. In the past, NATO peacekeepers have reached Macedonia by landing first at the Greek port of Thessaloniki.

    Priest reported from Mons, Belgium. Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Kukes, Albania, and staff writer David Finkel in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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