NATO considers strategy shift as Milosevic prevails

As Yugoslav forces mop-up in Kosovo, NATO looks for ways to curb Serb leader

War In Yugoslavia

April 02, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is close to achieving his goal of wiping out armed resistance in Kosovo, pushing out a significant number of ethnic Albanians and forcing U.S. and NATO officials to focus on driving Serbian forces from the province.

Having failed to deter the Yugoslav army's campaign of repression in Kosovo, NATO forces will concentrate on weakening Milosevic's war machine with airstrikes to the point where Yugoslav military leaders demand that he permit a retreat from the province, a NATO diplomat said yesterday.

In the weeks ahead, President Clinton may be forced to back away from his refusal to send in ground forces in the absence of a peace agreement, a NATO official said, giving his personal opinion. Ground forces may be necessary to prevent a vacuum in Kosovo and safeguard humanitarian relief for a shrunken but starving population in the province, the official said.

Officials clarified the challenges to NATO forces yesterday in the wake of bleak intelligence assessments.

Officials said Serb forces will need only a few days to meet their objectives of defeating the KLA and removing significant numbers of civilians from Kosovo.

"Serb army and security forces are dealing with some of the last remaining areas of KLA resistance," a Pentagon official said. "Belgrade may have reached the peak of its offensive. Once completed, the Serb forces will fan out around north, east and central Kosovo to go after isolated KLA forces. As a result, Milosevic will be unwilling to compromise on the status of Kosovo."

Milosevic pretty much "has done what he wants to do," a Pentagon official said.

U.S. officials made little effort to brighten the picture, acknowledging that the drive to stop Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had so far failed. But, they insisted, NATO eventually will prevail.

Briefing reporters yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, the supreme allied commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said, "It was an effort designed to slow down, block, ultimately to deter further action; or, should that fail, to inflict on President Milosevic the loss of those assets which he prizes very highly."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said yesterday: "In the short term, President Milosevic may think that he is accomplishing his objectives of driving ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo and presenting the international community with a fait accompli.

"But NATO's commitment to this crisis is not a short-term one. NATO strategy is aimed at disrupting and crippling the assets that enable Milosevic to carry out his atrocities in Kosovo. Those assets also form the basis of Milosevic's power," Rubin added.

"The longer he refuses to stop his campaign of terror, withdraw his forces and embrace a settlement based on Rambouillet, the longer NATO airstrikes will continue," he said.

"If Milosevic refuses to comply with the demands of the international community, he will increasingly find himself stripped of the military and police assets that have enabled him to maintain dictatorial control over Serbia and to wage a campaign of terror against the population of Kosovo," Rubin said.

Rambouillet refers to a Western-drafted peace plan presented to Yugoslavia in February at a castle outside Paris. Representatives of the Kosovar Albanians reluctantly signed it late last month, but Milosevic refused, triggering the bombing campaign. The plan would have given Kosovo limited autonomy for three years and provided for a NATO peacekeeping force of 28,000 to enter the province.

A NATO diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Milosevic would have to act to stop the bombing, by moving his troops out of Kosovo.

"This is over when Milosevic decides it's over," the diplomat said. "The objective is to hit the military hard so the military gives him that message: `We can't take this anymore.' "

"The military can't afford to lose lots more equipment," the diplomat said. A cease-fire by Milosevic would be insufficient to bring a halt to the bombing; Yugoslav gains must be reversed, officials said.

If this scenario offers a large measure of success for NATO, it comes at a price: the need to provide a haven in the province to allow for the return of refugees.

"We have to think ahead to the post-conflict situation," another NATO official said.

Even if Milosevic is forced to withdraw his forces from the province, he might remain unwilling to sign a peace accord, the official said.

Clinton has refused to consider sending in U.S. ground troops in the absence of a peace agreement. However, if Yugoslav forces withdraw from Kosovo, the alternative may be a dangerous vacuum, with no safe way for humanitarian relief to be distributed and no way to resettle the hundreds of thousands of displaced Kosovars, the official said.

"The reality is we will have to have a NATO no-fly zone over Kosovo and a tank-kill policy" to prevent Serb forces from trying to move back in, the official said. But to encourage refugees to return will require "an international presence," the official said. Giving a personal view, he said NATO will have to consider providing security for the relief effort.

Without it, there will be "people on the ground and in the hills with no food," he said. "We need to bring a relief operation into Kosovo once we stop fighting."

Asked to comment, White House spokesman P. J. Crowley did not dispute this scenario, but said, "We can't see into the future, and don't know what's in Milosevic's head."

He reiterated the administration's view that "at the heart of this there has to be a political settlement. How that will unfold, there is no way to predict."

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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