NATO bombs Belgrade

Allied missiles strike ministries of defense and interior 'Targets are being hit' Center-city attack represents widening of NATO campaign

War In Yugoslavia


WASHINGTON -- For the first time in NATO's 10-day bombardment, its missiles struck at the heart of downtown Belgrade early today, smashing into the defense and interior ministries in an escalation of the allied campaign.

Eight 1,000-pound Tomahawk missiles, fired from U.S. and British ships in the Adriatic Sea, struck the complex that houses both ministries, as well as the Serbian Republic police headquarters, a U.S. defense official said.

After the explosions, the building erupted into an orange inferno, and the scene was broadcast on Serbian state television.

"We can confirm that targets are being hit in downtown Belgrade," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman.

Until now, NATO aircraft and missiles have attacked mostly military targets in Serbia, from air defenses to troop headquarters and supply lines throughout the country.

But in recent days, the allies said they had expanded their target list to include bridges, roads and sites in downtown Belgrade, saying that any facility or infrastructure that aided "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo was fair game.

The attack on downtown Belgrade was intended, defense officials said, to deliver a powerful psychological message to President Slobodan Milosevic and his nation that they will pay a steep price for the Serbs' aggression in Kosovo.

"I am shocked. ... Stop bombarding Serbia," Vuk Draskovic, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister, told CNN after the airstrike on Belgrade, saying the Yugoslav government was working with Ibrahim Rugova, a Kosovar Albanian leader, toward a peaceful settlement.

Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials say Rugova appears to be negotiating with Milosevic to eventually become leader of a Kosovo province that has been cleansed of armed rebels and independence-minded civilian leaders, according to Pentagon sources.

The moderate Rugova held a much-publicized and unexpected meeting with Milosevic on Thursday, a meeting that some of his colleagues and Washington officials initially speculated that Rugova had attended under duress.

Intelligence reports suggest that Milosevic may be willing to stop short of completing his "ethnic-cleansing" campaign in Kosovo by placing Rugova as head of a more pliable province, now that he has eliminated much rebel resistance and killed many political leaders and intellectuals.

Milosevic could offer a Rugova-led province some limited autonomy, the reports suggest, something Milosevic would prefer to the self-rule called for by NATO or the outright independence demanded by the ethnic Albanians' Kosovo Liberation Army.

With a hand-picked leader in charge of Kosovo, Milosevic could then press for the NATO air campaign to end, intelligence officials said.

"Until we've spoken to him, we're not going to react to any purported agreements he's made," said a senior State Department official.

During a broadcast of the meeting, Serbian television said only that Milosevic and Rugova had signed an agreement calling for a peaceful end to the crisis by "political means."

Last month, Rugova was part of an ethnic Albanian delegation that signed a peace accord in France that was rejected by Milosevic, sparking the allied bombing campaign.

Rugova has long appealed for a nonviolent end to the Kosovo crisis and was twice elected as Kosovo's "president" in unofficial elections. After Yugoslavia stripped the province of its autonomy in 1989, Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians set up a parallel government.

Yesterday, Kosovo's leading Albanian nationalist politician, Hashim Thaqi, announced the formation of a self-styled government that excluded those moderates loyal to Rugova.

Thaqi named himself the head of the government, said an announcement on Albanian television, which said Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo had been excluded from the new government after deciding not to put up any candidates.

Some ethnic Albanians are uncertain why Rugova would sign an agreement that fails to meet their goals, saying it would amount to treason if he did so willingly.

Meanwhile, the Yugoslav state-run news agency Tanjung said military court proceedings had begun against three U.S. soldiers who the Pentagon said were on a routine patrol Wednesday in Macedonia when they were captured by Serbian forces. The investigative judge, Jovica Jovanovic, began gathering evidence, and "more detailed information will be known [today]," he told the news agency.

There has been no word on what charges the soldiers could face or whether Milosevic will let the soldiers call their families, something that Yugoslav media said he would do.

"We know precious little," said Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman.

Though Bacon said the Defense Department still believes that the soldiers were seized inside Macedonia, an investigation will seek to determine their whereabouts. Yugoslav officials have asserted that the three were captured inside Yugoslavia and were thus criminal invaders subject to prosecution.

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