Experts fear death toll of hundreds if allies invade

NATO ground attack on Yugoslavia would take weeks to prepare

War In Yugoslavia

April 01, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A NATO ground invasion of Kosovo would involve weeks of preparation, difficult logistics and high risk to alliance troops as they seek to wrest mountainous terrain from a determined foe, Pentagon officials say.

While casualties from such a mission would be hard to predict, some defense officials fear the death toll could quickly reach into the hundreds or higher, even before the difficult peacekeeping job would begin in Kosovo.

Such an attack could require 200,000 troops, Clinton administration officials say. They insist that they have no plans to use ground forces -- a move entailing huge political risks -- but have not completely ruled it out.

But the rising toll of atrocities against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the Serbian province's population, could make it the best of many bad choices, according to some people in Congress and elsewhere.

Pentagon officials and some outside experts warn that advocates of such a strategy should not underestimate the time or costs of a forced entry to Kosovo.

"There is no magic military bullet," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman. "There is not a quick solution."

Kosovo, about 80 miles long by 80 miles wide, is penetrated by only 14 entrance roads, several of which traverse narrow mountain passes.

The entry roads are defended with anti-tank mines, defense officials say, and the bridges are laden with explosive charges that could be set off to deny them to NATO forces.

Yugoslav forces hold the high ground at many places in Kosovo. Despite days of bombing, they are believed to have about 40,000 troops, 400 tanks, 300 armored personnel carriers and 300 artillery pieces in and near the province.

Tank and artillery positions are built in along communications lines, and officials fear that the Serbs may have have buried large stocks of supplies, weapons and ammunition during the many months that they have anticipated a possible fight with NATO.

"No one would mount a light attack against this," Bacon said Monday. "It would be an extremely heavy and determined attack."

The Yugoslav forces have been fighting in small groups of men and equipment, which are more difficult to find and destroy. In the event of a ground attack, officials say, they could disperse further.

Even if their tanks and artillery columns were largely destroyed, the Yugoslav forces appear well-equipped with mortars, grenade launchers and anti-tank guns.

Alliance officials have tried to bomb military communications systems and supply and ammunition dumps, hoping to disable Serbian forces by severing the military's "head" from its "body."

NATO troops would have to enter the country through narrow passes that would concentrate their forces and make them vulnerable to big losses.

Once they reached Pristina, the Kosovar capital, and other larger cities, they would confront all the problems of urban fighting, in which a maze of buildings makes it difficult to find enemy troops.

"You get into the old question from Vietnam: Are you going to destroy the village to save it?" said a senior official. "[Urban warfare] is what soldiers hate the most."

In addition to these problems are logistical difficulties in building up and supplying an invading force.

The logical sites to launch an invasion would be Bosnia and Herzegovina, where NATO has 30,000 troops, and Macedonia, where it has about 10,000. But it is not clear that these or other countries would be willing to be the host of such an operation.

By Bacon's estimate, it would take "three weeks to more than a month" before troops could begin an invasion, during which time Yugoslavia could continue its campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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