Yeltsin Warns NATO on Ground Troops
By Greg Myre
MOSCOW (AP) — President Boris Yeltsin warned NATO today not to send ground troops into Yugoslavia and ``make it their protectorate,'' saying such a development could prompt a stronger response from Russia.
``We cannot permit that,'' Yeltsin said in the Kremlin, according to the Interfax news agency.
The Russian leader has said repeatedly that his country will not be drawn into the Yugoslav conflict militarily, but added that NATO ground forces could change the equation and require additional action on Russia's part.
``Russia will not interfere in the armed conflict in Yugoslavia – if the Americans do not push it to that,'' Yeltsin was quoted as saying.
Some Russian hard-liners have been calling on Yeltsin to provide military aid to Moscow's ally Yugoslavia, but the president has consistently rejected such calls.
Still, his comments today were some of the harshest he has directed at NATO.
NATO ``wants to launch ground operations, it wants to simply seize Yugoslavia and make it their protectorate,'' Yeltsin was quoted as saying.
The comments also appeared to contradict remarks he made earlier in the day, when he said he didn't envision NATO sending ground troops into Yugoslavia.
NATO will not ``dare launch a ground operation'' in Kosovo, the president was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. ``This will mean big losses. The Serbs are prepared to fight to the last man.''
Meanwhile, Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of Russia's parliament, claimed that Yeltsin has given an order to target Russian strategic missiles at the NATO nations. The comment was reported by the Interfax news agency, but Seleznyov made no mention of this in remarks to parliament.
Yeltsin's office had no immediate reaction when contacted by phone.
Russia has sought to find a diplomatic solution to halt the NATO airstrikes, but so far its calls have been largely ignored by the alliance.
NATO says it has no plans to send ground troops into Yugoslavia to fight, though it is prepared to have soldiers enforce a peace agreement that will grant autonomy to Kosovo and allow for the return of ethnic Albanians who have fled their homes.
Yeltsin met today in the Kremlin with Seleznyov, who was in Belgrade a day earlier for talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The Yugoslav leader requested military aid from Russia, Seleznyov said. But Yeltsin reiterated that Russia would not send arms to Yugoslavia.
Seleznyov said that during his talks with Milosevic on Thursday, he proposed that Yugoslavia join a Slavic union that already includes Russia and Belarus. Milosevic said he supported the idea, according to Seleznyov.
However, the Russia-Belarus union remains a largely paper agreement that has not produced any visible benefits to either nation.
Meanwhile, Russian humanitarian aid was headed to Yugoslavia and will be made available to all in need, the head of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said today.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press