U.S. sends attack helicaopter

24 low-flying aircraft to attack Serbian troops and tanks

2,000 soldiers with copters

Administration insists decision is not step toward ground war

War In Yugoslavia

April 05, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has approved sending 24 attack helicopters to hit hard at Yugoslav ground forces in Kosovo, the Pentagon announced yesterday, opening a risky new dimension in a war where the United States and its allies have produced no sign of capitulation by their opponent.

But a number of Washington voices described this increase in force as too small to make sure the United States and its NATO allies will prevail, signaling that support may be increasing in Congress for deploying a large ground force.

The Apache AH-64A helicopters armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles will give NATO a powerful all-weather, night-and-day weapon that can fly low and hit Yugoslav tanks and troops that have driven hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes.

"This will basically help NATO tighten the noose around [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's neck. This will help NATO do more to kill armored forces quickly than we've been able to do so far," spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said. Bad weather has severely hampered the air campaign.

"It will give us the capability to get up close and personal to the Milosevic armor units in Kosovo and to do a more effective job at eliminating or neutralizing the forces on the ground," Bacon said.

He stressed that it was "pure and simple an expansion of the air operation," and not a step toward a ground campaign.

Because many U.S. military cargo planes also are being used for humanitarian aid, it could take up to 10 days to deploy the Apaches from their base in Germany, the Pentagon said.

But use of the helicopters will increase the chance of U.S. pilots being shot down. To prevent this, the Pentagon is sending the Apaches as part of a package with artillery and surface-to-surface missiles that will be used against Yugoslav air defenses.

About 2,000 soldiers will come with the helicopters and accompanying equipment, and will be based in Albania, which borders Kosovo. NATO ambassadors are expected to formally approve the step today. But Bacon said Clinton would have to approve the use of the helicopters.

"The president always approves significant military deployments at times where prospective operations pose significant risks to our men and women in uniform," said White House spokesman P. J. Crowley.

The dispatch of the helicopters was announced over an Easter Sunday during which NATO warplanes and missiles attacked an army headquarters, oil refineries and other targets in and around the capital of Belgrade.

In a CNN interview yesterday, NATO's military spokesman, British Air Commodore David Wilby, confirmed that the weekend's airstrikes had struck a power plant, saying it was "targeted because of military strategic requirements."

He also said NATO had expanded its targets to include "very high command-and-control areas, which of course are the nerve centers of all the operations."

A strong explosion was heard last night near Novi Sad, northern Serbia's largest city where NATO missiles destroyed two bridges over the Danube river last week, the state television (RTS) said, according to Reuters news service.

Clearing skies over Belgrade and other parts of northern Serbia -- the main republic in Yugoslavia -- and the promise of better weather ahead offered NATO officials the hope that more sorties will be possible.

However, these strikes, and the earlier, dramatic attack on two Interior Ministry buildings in downtown Belgrade, failed to restrain the Yugoslav forces, who drove toward Kosovo's western mountains where ethnic Albanian guerrillas were preparing a last stand, according to reports from the region.

To relieve the enormous crush of refugees that threatens the stability of fragile regional governments, the United States announced yesterday that it would receive as many as 20,000 refugees on a temporary basis. A number of European nations also said they would accept some refugees.

Top administration officials moved further to adjust the goals of the air campaign. While sticking to their official demand for a negotiated settlement that would allow ethnic Albanians to return to a province with a large measure of autonomy, officials acknowledged that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may still refuse a deal.

Failing that, "at the very least ... we loosen his grip and his ability to impose his will on Kosovo." said one official.

NATO officials have suggested that this could be enough to carve out a safe haven that would allow troops to accompany refugees to their homes.

The administration had insisted on a peace agreement as a condition for sending in peacekeepers; officials yesterday held open the prospect that a "permissive environment" could be created in Kosovo without one.

The increasingly uncertain outlook of the war fueled a chorus of frustration from commentators yesterday, with more members of Congress calling for the White House to consider ground troops.

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