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NATO Softens Conditions on Kosovo

NATO, Summit Leaders of the 19 NATO nations gather at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington D.C. (Reuters)

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  • By Thomas W. Lippman and William Drozdiak
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, April 24, 1999; Page A1

    NATO leaders reaffirmed their determination yesterday to escalate the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia until their terms for peace are met, but softened those conditions in the hope of encouraging Russian attempts to mediate an early resolution to the conflict over Kosovo.

    The new position, outlined in a 17-point communique, represented a series of compromises struck by NATO leaders at their summit conference here to maintain the cohesion of the alliance one month into a growing bombing campaign that has produced only mixed results. It sought to balance the desire of the United States and Britain for military escalation against the desire of several European countries for a diplomatic settlement brokered by Russia.

    U.S. officials expressed doubt that Russia's efforts will produce acceptable results even with the softened NATO position. Underlining the point, the Pentagon announced it is sending 2,050 more troops and several companies of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles to Albania.

    The additional forces, the Pentagon said, were dispatched to help protect the 24 AH-64A Apache attack helicopters scheduled to begin operating there soon. But officials pointed out they also could become part of an invasion force if necessary, or of an international security force for refugees returning to Kosovo. British Defense Minister George Robertson said the total allied force in Albania and Macedonia may reach 30,000 within a few weeks.

    In its communique after a three-hour meeting on the Kosovo air war, the alliance said it is "prepared to suspend its air strikes" once the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has begun rather than completed a withdrawal of troops and security forces from Kosovo. And the alliance said it will seek a U.N. Security Council mandate for the peacekeeping force it plans to send to Kosovo once hostilities have ceased, a mandate that can be obtained only with the assent of Russia, a strong opponent of the alliance's bombing campaign.

    White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said the alliance is committed to sending an international military force into Kosovo whether the Security Council endorses it or not. Officials of other alliance countries, however, said the communique reflects their strong desire to win U.N. endorsement and Russian participation in the military force.

    The communique also said NATO "remains ready to form the core of such an international military force," a modification of its previous insistence that the force be fundamentally composed of troops from NATO countries.

    In interviews and briefings after yesterday's meeting, senior officials from many of NATO's 19 countries gave differing interpretations of the communique's meaning, indicating the document was drafted to allow each country to present it at home as reflective of that government's policy.

    "What the leaders were saying today is more, not less; stronger, not weaker," Berger said.

    A senior aide to Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, on the other hand, said, "We need to box Milosevic in, but also leave a little door." The door, he said, is the statement that NATO is prepared to suspend the bombing before a Yugoslav troop pullout is complete.

    NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and senior NATO officials said the communique was drafted specifically to encourage Russia's diplomatic efforts to broker a settlement between Milosevic and the alliance and to end the breach between Moscow and the West that has paralyzed the security council.

    Former Russian prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, President Boris Yeltsin's Balkan peace envoy, met with Milosevic in Belgrade on Thursday and said yesterday for the first time that Russia would endorse the inclusion of foreign troops in a peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

    NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said this might be "a good sign" that Milosevic has recognized that "he needs an exit strategy far more than we do." But he and senior officials of NATO countries said they have heard nothing from Chernomyrdin indicating that Milosevic is close to accepting NATO peace terms.

    While the terms specified in the communique offer new diplomatic maneuvering room, NATO leaders said they reflect no retreat from the alliance's determination to continue the air war until Milosevic accepts its fundamental goals.

    As restated in the document, these are:

    "A verifiable stop to all military action" in Milosevic's campaign to destroy the secessionist guerrilla movement in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, and drive off the ethnic Albanian majority that makes up the rebels' population base.

    Withdrawal from the province of Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces.

    Acceptance of an international military protection force to enable Kosovo's civilian refugees to return home and unhindered access to Kosovo by relief organizations.

    And "credible assurance of his willingness to work for the establishment of a political framework agreement" giving the province substantial self-government.

    "Our message is clear," Clinton said at a commemorative ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the alliance. "Peace and humanity will prevail in Kosovo. The refugees will go home. They will have security. They will have their self-government."

    The communique called for "an international provisional administration of Kosovo under which its people can enjoy substantial autonomy" within Yugoslavia. Diplomats said that would be the equivalent of what used to be called a protectorate, implying a long-term commitment by NATO and if Russia assents the United Nations to run the province in all but name.

    The Kosovo communique was issued at the start of NATO's 50th anniversary summit conference, an event planned as a celebration of the alliance's Cold War success that has been transformed into a war council by the month-long air campaign against Yugoslavia.

    NATO's communique stressed the alliance's unanimous commitment to the war and its objectives. Behind the display of unity and resolve, however, lay serious differences among the allies that reflected the difficulty of maintaining a coherent war-fighting strategy among 19 democracies.

    Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, for example, questioned the entire rationale for the air campaign, telling reporters: "The air raids have not led to the end of ethnic cleansing, but rather have intensified it. Milosevic has not lost his appeal with the Yugoslav people. On the contrary, he has strengthened his position."

    The sensitive issue of attacking civilian targets and the heightened risk of collateral damage surfaced in a NATO missile strike on a Serbian radio and television building.

    Italy's foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, called the action "terrible news" and said the strike should not have been carried out since it was not an authorized target. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the bombing was "entirely justified" because television stations "are part of the apparatus and power of Milosevic" that he has used to conduct the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. Canada also endorsed the strike.

    The question of whether to carry military operations to a new level that would include ground troops an option for which Solana has authorized renewed planning by NATO's military commanders also raised controversy.

    Britain and France have concluded that ground troops may have to be sent into Kosovo to accompany returning refugees even in the absence of Belgrade's consent, but other governments argued that it would be unwise to declare a new phase involving ground troops.

    Senior German officials said brandishing the threat of ground troops at this time would provoke a serious political crisis for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government. The Greens party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, is deeply ambivalent over the airstrikes and many pacifist members have vowed to bring down the government if NATO took the fateful step to invade Yugoslavia on the ground.

    "The debate on ground troops is no longer on the table," Schroeder said, with obvious relief. "There will be no change in the strategy," which calls for sending troops into Kosovo only to enforce a settlement, not to fight Yugoslav forces.

    The closed-door talks did not dwell at length, U.S. officials said, on the idea of a forcible ground invasion of Kosovo and in fact the statement reaffirmed that ground troops would go to Kosovo only after "Belgrade has unequivocally accepted" NATO's demands. But officials said that, in the meantime, allied governments will build up their forces in the region in case that policy changes later.

    The allies waged an intense debate over whether to demand the removal of all Serb forces from Kosovo. In the final statement, the word "all" was deleted in the call for "the withdrawal of Serb forces" although Solana said it meant all.

    Several European governments argued that since Kosovo would remain under the authority of the Serb Republic which along with tiny Montenegro forms the Yugoslav federation under the autonomy deal endorsed by NATO, some Serb troops should be allowed to stay as a reflection of Belgrade's sovereignty.

    There was also wrangling over how to enforce an embargo against oil and war materials destined for Serbia. After the United States proposed military action to stop supplies entering Montenegro's ports, France backed by Italy and Greece insisted any blockade against the ports of Montenegro would be a declaration of war requiring a United Nations resolution.

    Other allies noted that a blockade would punish and possibly undermine the democratic government of Montenegro, whose prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, has opposed Milosevic's policies and whom NATO has vowed to support.

    Staff writers John F. Harris, William Branigin, Valerie Strauss, Bradley Graham, Dana Priest, Sylvia Moreno and Saundra Torry contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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