U.S. might send troops to Kosovo within weeks

Deployment would be part of 3-year NATO peacekeeping effort

February 04, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- By the middle of this month, thousands of U.S. soldiers could be sent to the strife-torn Yugoslav province of Kosovo and remain for years as part of a NATO peacekeeping force of up to 35,000 soldiers whose duties and duration are only in the vague planning stage.

Officials acknowledge that the plan could go terribly wrong: The Serbs could refuse to cooperate and could, as a consequence, be bombed. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels -- the Kosovo Liberation Army -- could prove so intransigent that they would be left at the mercy of the Serbs.

For centuries, the province has been a symbol of ethnic tension between Muslims and Serbs, and Western experts fear that if fighting there spreads, it could ignite a regional war, drawing in Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and possibly Turkey.

Top administration officials -- including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- met yesterday with senators to discuss the still-uncertain plan for a peacekeeping force. The NATO force is expected to remain for at least three years, during which Kosovo would be granted autonomy from Serbia.

"A lot of the concept, a lot of the size of the force, I think, will depend on what type of a settlement or cease-fire comes out of the agreement between the two factions," Shelton told the Senate Armed Services Committee, shortly before the closed-door meeting with senators.

Cohen told the committee: "We are part of NATO, and therefore we will make a contribution" to the Kosovo force, though the number of U.S. troops "should be relatively small by comparison" to what the Europeans contribute.

"Because we have been carrying a very large load as far as the Air Force component, and should there be any air strikes that would be ordered, we would be the ones carrying the load on that, therefore I think more responsibility should be shifted to the Europeans to bear."

Shelton said the "maximum number" of U.S. servicement who would join a NATO deployment in Kosovo would be 2,000 to 4,000 troops.

The reason for any intervention is the breakdown of a cease-fire negotiated in October by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. The breakdown was brutally driven home by the recent massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians, jolting Western leaders into action.

In the spring, officials fear, a better-armed, better-led and better-trained rebel force could challenge Yugoslav forces, reigniting the conflict with new savagery.

"We assess that if the fighting escalates in the spring as we expect, it will be bloodier than last year's. Belgrade will seek to crush the KLA once and for all, while the insurgents will have the capability to inflict heavier casualties on Serb forces," George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

The peacekeeping force is an integral part of a peace plan that U.S. and European officials hope will start taking shape Saturday at Rambouillet, a chateau outside Paris.

The aim of the talks is to produce a three-year interim agreement that grants substantial autonomy to Kosovo while keeping it within Yugoslavia.

The KLA indicated Tuesday that it would attend. No final word has come from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but he is expected to send a delegation as well.

If an agreement is reached, NATO would quickly place the peacekeeping force on the ground. "Things could happen fast," said a NATO diplomat.

The military plans are being drawn up by British Gen. Sir Rupert Smith, the deputy supreme allied commander of NATO, and are expected to be completed by this weekend.

Smith is "struggling" with what is called a "troop-to-task analysis," said one military official. Plans call for various levels of troops that would be needed to enforce a peace settlement or to force one, said one NATO source, with a high end at around 35,000.

That would more than double the number of NATO soldiers in the Balkans, where 32,000 -- including 6,900 Americans -- remain in Bosnia.

These figures, however, are "back of the envelope" estimates and not the result of careful planning, a NATO diplomat acknowledged.

Indeed, the exact size and the tasks of the peacekeeping force are expected to be worked out in the course of the talks at Rambouillet. But a NATO source suggesting U.S. mechanized infantry and armored troops would likely be deployed as part of the force.

Even the number of Americans being talked about now is unlikely to satisfy the Europeans, who would prefer a bigger U.S. force.

A large ground presence is needed because of Kosovo's bitter history. Its 90 percent Albanian majority has been repressed by the Serbs, for whom the province has been considered sacred ground for centuries since they lost a large battle there to the Turks.

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