In Kosovo talks, time running out

Yugoslav president continues to reject interim settlement

NATO airstrikes readied

As deadline nears, concessions worry ethnic Albanians

February 20, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Western nations and Yugoslavia engaged in down-to-the-wire Balkan brinkmanship yesterday as a deadline loomed this morning for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to either ratify a peace agreement with ethnic Albanians and allow NATO peacekeeping troops into Kosovo or face punishing airstrikes.

President Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac, after a meeting at the White House, warned Milosevic not to test the resolve of the NATO alliance.

Clinton said it would be a mistake to extend the deadline. If an agreement cannot be reached, "I don't think there is an option" other than force, he said.

But Milosevic, reflecting his reputation for high-risk defiance, refused to see an American envoy, Christopher Hill, who went to Belgrade yesterday to try to persuade him to accept a deal with the ethnic Albanians.

Milosevic said he would accept bombing rather than give up Kosovo.

His stance prompted pessimistic diplomats to say that airstrikes may be necessary to force Milosevic to bend.

Chirac said he and Clinton agreed that Milosevic cannot preserve Kosovo as part of Serbia unless he accepts the deal, which would grant substantial self-rule to the Albanians who make up 90 percent of the province's population.

In a final push for an agreement, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright flew late yesterday to Paris, where two weeks of talks between Yugoslav and Albanian representatives at nearby Rambouillet were scheduled to end at 6 a.m. (EST) today.

As a precaution, Western diplomats and aid workers began an evacuation from Yugoslavia yesterday in anticipation of possible airstrikes.

A senior U.S. official said there were no plans for Albright to journey on to Belgrade, particularly given the attitude Milosevic showed yesterday.

But if Yugoslavia were to give substantial ground in negotiations overnight, there is a possibility the secretary of state could meet with Milosevic in his capital to "clinch the deal," the official said, even if it meant briefly extending the deadline.

A deal would end months of escalating conflict in Kosovo that Western leaders fear could ignite a regionwide war.

Though Kosovo has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population and an Albanian guerrilla army fighting for independence, the province has been a powerful symbol of Serbian nationalism, one that Milosevic has used to boost his own political strength.

The compromise that both sides have been pressured to accept would increase autonomy and self-government in the province but would keep it within Yugoslavia, at least for three years.

To enforce it, NATO plans to lead a peacekeeping force of up to 30,000 troops in Kosovo -- including up to 4,000 Americans -- to ensure that Serbian forces are scaled back and barred from menacing the Albanian population and to prevent the Kosovo Liberation Army from filling the vacuum.

In an appeal to Milosevic, Clinton said the proposed deal offered the only way he could keep Kosovo within Yugoslavia.

Escalating airstrikes

If Milosevic fails to accept the agreement by the deadline, NATO is prepared to launch an escalating series of airstrikes. To back up the threat, the United States continued strengthening its forces in Europe by sending six B-52 bombers from a base in Louisiana to England.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana already has authority to launch attacks against Yugoslavia but is expected to consult beforehand with NATO ambassadors in Brussels and by telephone with key NATO leaders.

Diplomats have said all preparations for airstrikes have been completed. But they have refused to say how soon they would get under way.

The strikes would have two purposes, diplomats say: to pressure Milosevic into accepting the deal and to wreck the capability of Yugoslav forces to commit atrocities against Kosovo civilians.

The B-52 bombers are capable of firing 2,000-pound cruise missiles.

They are in addition to 51 other U.S. planes that are expected to arrive during the weekend, including 12 F-117 radar-evading Nighthawk fighters and 10 EA-6B Prowlers, designed to jam radar facilities with electronic bursts or destroy them with missiles.

More than 400 U.S. and NATO combat and support aircraft could take part in any bombing campaign, which Pentagon and NATO officials say would likely begin with 1,000-pound sea-launched missiles from three ships and one submarine in the battle group of the carrier USS Enterprise, now based in the Mediterranean.

Those ships are armed with hundreds of cruise missiles.

Any attack would first target Serbian air defenses and military communications centers before expanding to troop and armor concentrations, officials said. There are plans for both limited and phased bombing campaigns, which would begin on targets in Kosovo and expand to sites elsewhere in Serbia.

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