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  •   NATO Agrees to Target Belgrade

    German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, right, says goodbye to Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, left, after their talks on Kosovo in Bonn. (AP Photo)
    By Thomas W. Lippman and Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, March 31, 1999; Page A1

    The United States and its NATO allies yesterday agreed on an expansion of the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia that would target the center of Belgrade following the failure of diplomatic efforts to end the conflict and continuing reports of brutal ethnic cleansing in the battered province of Kosovo.

    The NATO ministers have approved a plan to "broaden and deepen" the target list, said a U.S. official, as more planes took off from air bases in Italy for another night of strikes now focused on the infrastructure supporting Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.

    The goal of expanding the strikes literally is to bring the air war home to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by blowing up facilities crucial to his government regime and geographically closer to where he and his government usually reside. But the broader list also includes more targets in Kosovo, reflecting NATO desires to begin striking at the scattered tanks and troops carrying out the crackdown.

    Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a strong opponent of the bombing campaign, went to Belgrade yesterday in an effort to stop it but emerged with ill-defined proposals that President Clinton and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promptly rejected.

    After six hours of talks with Milosevic, Primakov said upon arriving in Bonn that the Serb leader was prepared to negotiate a political settlement and withdraw some troops from the separatist province, but only after the bombing stops.

    Schroeder called this offer "unacceptable" and Clinton used the same word in a brief statement. "President Milosevic began this brutal campaign," Clinton added. "It is his responsibility to bring it to an immediate end and embrace a just peace. There is a strong consensus in NATO that we must press forward with our military action."

    As the war continues with unexpected brutality, officials said the Clinton administration is beginning to envisage a Kosovo that would be independent in all but name, protected by an international power – possibly the United Nations, according to senior officials. The U.S. view is that the Serbs have forfeited their right to rule Kosovo by their actions in their offensive, and the Kosovars have been so radicalized that they will never agree to live under Serb rule.

    NATO's sense of urgency about Kosovo has increased as the tales of horror emerging from Kosovo have multiplied and neighboring countries have shown signs of staggering under the weight of half a million displaced persons, including 100,000 who have fled the province since the bombing campaign began. Yesterday Macedonia began rejecting Kosovar Albanians without passports and a relief official said border police turned back a train that carried dozens of refugees because they lacked "proper documentation."

    In Pristina, Kosovo's capital, explosions and bursts of automatic weapons fire indicated that the separatist guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army were challenging the Serb security forces, the Los Angeles Times reported. If that is the case, it would be the first such engagement in Pristina after a year of fighting mostly in the countryside, and would tend to confirm reports reaching U.S. officials that the KLA has survived Serb attempts to stamp it out.

    "We're getting reports from guys in basements with cell phones that they're hanging in there," one U.S. official said.

    Despite Clinton's assertion of a "strong consensus" in NATO, it was clear yesterday that disagreements have surfaced within the alliance on tactics, if not on the overall wisdom and necessity of the bombing campaign.

    Senior administration officials have acknowledged that the scope and ferocity of the Serb crackdown in Kosovo took them by surprise.

    As special Kosovo representative James Pardew put it yesterday, "What is shocking is the size, scope and intensity and the brutality of the use of Serbian military and security forces, paramilitary and armed Serb civilians who are simply rampaging through large sections of Kosovo."

    Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. Before hundreds of thousands fled into neighboring Albania and Macedonia, Kosovo's province was about 90 percent ethnic Albanian, of different language and religion from the Serbs. In a campaign that NATO officials say was planned and prepared long before the bombing started, Milosevic's forces have been burning villages and forcing civilians to leave Kosovo in an apparent attempt to ensure that Serb power there will not be challenged again.

    Nevertheless, U.S. officials said that in a political sense this "rampage" has actually played into Washington's hands by reinforcing NATO's determination. What Washington feared, one senior official said, were gestures of partial or token compliance by Milosevic that would split the alliance if some members found them adequate.

    Instead, this official said, the Serbian leader has "given us the full Milosevic," a response so unbending that there is no possibility of accommodation.

    Before last night's NATO agreement, U.S. and British officials and NATO spokesmen said the list of targets in the air campaign had already expanded to include barracks, bivouac sites and transport convoys of the Serb security forces conducting the crackdown in Kosovo. For the first few days of the bombing, NATO aircraft avoided such targets, concentrating instead on an effort to suppress Yugoslavia's potent air defenses.

    "The focus of the airstrikes has now shifted firmly toward military forces in Kosovo and the facilities directly supporting them," British Gen. Charles Guthrie said yesterday.

    "As an example," he said, "post-strike analysis yesterday showed that in Kosovo the Pristina headquarters of the Serbian Special Police, the MUP, had received multiple strikes and is now largely destroyed." He said "this is the sort of treatment which Milosevic can now increasingly expect."

    Nevertheless, according to Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, such strikes have done little if anything to halt the reported campaign of brutalization by the Serbian forces.

    "It is difficult to say that we have prevented one act of brutality at this stage," Bacon said, because the campaign in Kosovo is being conducted by "small groups . . . of armed, vicious people going out and shooting people at close range, frequently burning them, shelling their houses."

    Clinton administration officials said the events of the past few days have shown that the battle now is really about the future status of Kosovo: Who is going to live there and who is going to control it politically?

    The Serbs, by all accounts, appear bent on exiling or killing enough of the ethnic Albanian majority to ensure that their authority will not be challenged again.

    According to NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, for example, the city of Pec, which had a population of about 100,000, "has been almost totally destroyed. We also have reports of people, thousands of people from Prizren, being forced to leave on a forced march toward the Albanian border."

    Independent relief agencies and volunteer groups said they share the assessment of allied officials that the Serbs are conducting a systematic campaign of executions and forced emigration aimed at cementing their permanent control.

    U.S. and allied officials insist that the refugees eventually be allowed to go home, rebuild and live peacefully, free of Serb control. According to U.S. officials, the three-year period of autonomy under NATO protection provided in the proposed Rambouillet peace agreement – which the Kosovars accepted and the Serbs rejected – is no longer a viable solution because the Kosovars will never agree to live under Serb authority.

    The United States and its allies do not support full independence for Kosovo, partly because independence would encourage separatist movements in Turkey, Russia and elsewhere and partly because an independent Kosovo would not be economically viable. The compromise, officials suggested, would be a kind of virtual independence, in which Serbia would have nominal sovereignty but no authority.

    Clinton signaled this shift yesterday in comments at a State Department ceremony honoring former secretary of state Warren Christopher, whose portrait was unveiled. As the bombing campaign goes on, Clinton said, Milosevic will see "the prospect of international support for Serbia's claim to Kosovo increasingly jeopardized."

    State Department spokesman James P. Rubin also indicated that the future status of Kosovo is unlikely to involve a return to Serb authority.

    "What has happened is that through this brutality," he said, "the Serb authorities are radicalizing the population of Kosovo and making it all the more difficult to imagine a circumstance where the peoples can begin to live together again."

    Officially, however, "our position on independence has not changed," Rubin said.

    Senior allied officials vowed yesterday not to allow Milosevic to solidify permanent Serb control of the province by driving out its population.

    "There is absolutely no question about us accepting some warfare-designed ethnic clear-out of Kosovo," British Defense Minister George Robertson said at a briefing in London. "The refugees must be allowed to go home, their homes must be rebuilt, he must not be allowed to profit from this exercise in ethnic warfare."

    What remains unclear is how the allies propose to break the Serbian grip on the province and enable the refugees to go home – other than by continuing the air campaign indefinitely, which Clinton and other officials said they are prepared to do.

    "We must remain steady and determined, with the will to see this through," Clinton said.

    The carnage inside Kosovo "makes us all the more determined in the alliance to keep up the effort that we're making at the moment and progressively be in a position to stop these attacks and to move the situation toward some kind of salvation for the people of Kosovo," Shea said.

    Administration officials refused to put any time frame on the air attacks or set any numerical targets that would define a success. "We're not going to say that the mission is accomplished if we take out 70 percent of his capability, or 30 percent, or any figure," one senior official said. The bombing will end, he and others insisted, only when the refugees can return to Kosovo without fear of further intimidation by Serbian authorities.

    There is no possibility that the refugees will remain in neighboring countries, senior U.S. and British officials said, because those countries – Albania in particular, which is sheltering more than 91,000 Kosovars despite being Europe's poorest country – are already unstable.

    Early this morning, U.S. officials took possession of the Yugoslav embassy and the ambassador's residence in Washington. A State Department official said the mission was told Friday to cease operations and vacate its premises by midnight Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether the delegation had left the country.

    Standing in front of the embassy in the 2400 block of California Street NW shortly before 2 a.m., Theodore Strickler, deputy assistant secretary of state, read a statement: "Pursuant to the decision of the government of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the Office of Foreign Missions of the U.S. Department of State is taking possession of the embassy and the ambassador's residence."

    Staff writers Brian Mooar and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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