WASHINGTON -- NATO took early steps yesterday toward launching military attacks against Yugoslavia after two top alliance generals got nowhere in calling on President Slobodan Milosevic to account for last week's massacre of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Officials said several diplomatic steps lay ahead before the alliance would begin air strikes, but the U.S. envoy to NATO, Alexander Vershbow, said the alliance is "on the brink" of action.
Asked on a British Broadcasting Corp. program whether Milosevic has a few days to maneuver, Vershbow replied, "I wouldn't guarantee that he has even that long."
Meeting in Brussels, Belgium, NATO envoys took several steps aimed at showing Milosevic they are serious in threatening force unless he cooperates in investigating the massacre, in which 45 people were killed.
They cut in half, to 48 hours, the time required to ready forces for an attack and approved moving ships and aircraft into the Adriatic Sea and Italy, closer to Yugoslavia.
They also accelerated preparations for enlarging a force that would extract international monitors who might otherwise be held as hostages by the Serbs. The force, nicknamed "The Dentists" and based in Macedonia, could grow from its current strength of 2,000 to as big as 10,000. Two U.S. liaison officers are assigned to the French-led force.
"NATO is now taking certain military steps to put NATO in a position to move rapidly, if the North Atlantic Council makes a decision to use military force," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.
In seven hours of talks with Milosevic Tuesday, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the alliance commander, and German Gen. Klaus Naumann, head of its military committee, failed to get him to budge on their demands that he cancel his planned expulsion of U.S. envoy William Walker, allow international investigators to investigate the massacre and pull his forces back from the embattled province.
"We were not surprised, but we were disappointed by the very stubborn and obdurate reaction we encountered in Belgrade," Clark said after 7 1/2 hours of talks.
Rubin termed the meeting with the Yugoslav leader "unsatisfactory across the board."
The alliance is united in the modest steps that have been taken, but it does not appear to have coalesced around a plan or a military strategy.
"We will choose the timing and decisions, not based on any precooked, knee-jerk response, but based on the situation as we see it in consultation with our allies. That is the way to do responsible policy-making, not to set in motion an automatic process that may or may not fit the current circumstances," said Rubin.
`Very serious situation'
"This is a very serious situation in which one wants to think through all the options, think through all the consequences in advance."
U.S. policy-makers are working with Russia in an effort to get Milosevic to change his stance. A top Russian envoy arrived yesterday in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, while Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright talked by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Meanwhile, the carrier USS Enterprise arrived in the Adriatic Sea with its 11-ship battle group. Several of the ships carry 1,000-pound Tomahawk cruise missiles, which would be used against Serbian air defense systems before air raids, Pentagon officials said.
Also yesterday, the Netherlands and Britain said they would send additional attack aircraft to Italy to bolster NATO strength. The U.S. Air Force has several dozen attack aircraft based in Aviano, Italy.
More than 400 allied aircraft remain on standby in the area under an October order that remained in effect after Milosevic agreed to stop military operations.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that his country might participate in a ground force in Kosovo if there was agreement among the allies and cooperation from the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Despite the buildup, military action is unlikely while the 700 cease-fire monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are in the country, because they could be held hostage.
Legal basis sought
Some NATO members want to be sure they have a legal basis for intervening forcefully in another country's civil war, and that, too, could cause a delay.
Milosevic could help build NATO's case today if he makes good on a threat to expel Walker, who heads a civilian mission to monitor the cease-fire between Serbian security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is fighting for independence.
NATO fears that if the conflict grows unchecked, it could result in a humanitarian catastrophe and destabilize the region, possibly bringing Greece and Turkey into the conflict.
Neither the United States nor its European allies want to encourage the KLA in its quest for independence. Instead, they have pushed for a negotiated deal that would grant Kosovo greater rights and autonomy.
"We don't intend to be an air force for" the KLA, said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. "We believe there should be an agreement dealing with providing greater autonomy for the Kosovars so it's going require compliance on both sides, not just one."
Norway's foreign minister, Knut Vollebaek, who chairs the OSCE, will arrive in Belgrade today, and the "contact group" of major countries that keep track of events in the Balkans -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- will meet in London tomorrow.
Calling for political answers along with military ones, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said, "I do hope that in the coming days the international community -- that means NATO, the OSCE, the European Union, the contact group -- will have to devise a new strategy for the region. We cannot continue like this."
Pub Date: 1/21/99