NATO sends troops, aid to Albania

Renewed aerial attacks leave depots, factories around Belgrade ablaze

Albania-bound Apache gunships

Planeloads of food and other supplies dispatched for relief

April 04, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,sun national staff

WASHINGTON -- Faced with a Kosovo refugee crisis that is rapidly engulfing the Balkan region, NATO ordered upward of 8,000 troops and tons of supplies to Albania yesterday, while thousands of allied troops already stationed in Macedonia were dispatched to take part in the humanitarian efforts there.

Following through on its pledge to hit Yugoslavia's infrastructure, NATO struck early today at the Yugoslav capital's New Belgrade district, a modern industrial-residential complex across the Sava River from the center of the city, according to wire reports.

Yugoslav civil defense officials said a thermal heating plant in New Belgrade was hit a few hours before dawn, along with the police academy in the Banjica suburb.

There were no signs of attacks in the center of the old city, where NATO bombs earlier destroyed the Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries.

State-controlled media reported a total of 13 people injured in the strikes.

Three people were injured when a fuel depot near the town of Kraljevo, about 75 miles south of Belgrade, was also hit, news reports said. Also, a previously bombed factory in the central town of Cacak was targeted again. A power plant in the town of Pancevo, 10 miles northeast of Belgrade, also was hit.

As the conflict continued in the beleaguered Serbian province and tens of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring countries, officials estimated that all ethnic Albanians -- who made up 90 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million population -- could be forced from their homes before the end of the month.

"We currently estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 people are moving towards the borders seeking refuge in the neighboring countries," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea. "At this rate the Serb security forces would have more or less emptied Kosovo in between 10 to 20 days from now."

NATO and the United States quickly stepped up other humanitarian relief efforts yesterday, immediately dispatching planeloads of tents, sleeping bags and food, while drawing up plans for thousands of troops to assist in the relief.

From 6,000 to 8,000 NATO troops are expected to head to Albania to assist in the relief efforts while the 10,000 NATO troops already based in Macedonia will offer help to that nation's government, officials said.

A day after NATO missiles turned government buildings in downtown Belgrade into fiery skeletons, President Clinton declared yesterday that the allies would continue a more intensive air campaign designed to "exact a very high price" for Yugoslavia's military campaign and "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.

Administration and Pentagon officials also said last night that the United States has agreed to send Apache helicopter gunships to Albania, along with rockets and hundreds of soldiers to operate them, and will seek final NATO approval today for their use against Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, the New York Times reported.

NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, had asked for the use of the Apaches -- the Army's low-flying gunships designed to seek out and destroy tanks and other armored equipment -- more than a week ago. But his request had stalled because of political concerns that the helicopters suggested a ground war as much as the air war that the United States and NATO have so far waged.

The officials declined to specify the exact number of Apaches and soldiers would ultimately be sent to neighboring Albany, but a battalion of 18 Apaches and a battalion each of two rocket systems used to back them up, along with infantry troops to guard their base, would involve putting a force of as many as 2,000 Army soliders not far from the most intense fighting in Kosovo.

NATO could still limit the number or location of the Apaches, but the administration's approval moves the United States much closer to the introduction of ground troops in the Balkans.

The bombing campaign, now entering its 11th day, was hampered by the weather, officials said, with some planes unable to carry out bombing runs. As a result, the NATO attack dubbed Operation Allied Force relied on U.S. all-weather aircraft and cruise missiles fired by allied ships in the Adriatic Sea, NATO and Pentagon officials said.

"Our military mission in Kosovo is a difficult and dangerous one, but it's necessary and right, and we must stand with all our NATO allies to see it through," Clinton said yesterday in his radio address. "Our goal is to exact a very high price for Mr. Milosevic's policy of repression, and to seriously diminish his military capacity to maintain that policy."

Eight 1,000-pound Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy and British vessels early yesterday morning destroyed two buildings of the Interior Ministry in Belgrade, which houses the headquarters for the special police who have been assisting Yugoslav army units in their Kosovo attacks. Initial reports said the Defense Ministry was also attacked, though that ministry -- while still on a target list -- remained unscathed.

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