Ground war plan an option for NATO

Blueprints drafted last year could be quickly updated

War In Yugoslavia

April 12, 1999|By JONATHAN WEISMAN | JONATHAN WEISMAN,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the air war against Yugoslavia hampered by poor weather and slowed for Orthodox Easter celebrations, White House officials propped open the door to ground troops a little wider yesterday, saying that NATO plans for a ground war that were drafted last year could quickly and easily be updated and implemented.

The pronouncements came as the NATO campaign against the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic entered politically treacherous territory.

With Congress returning today from its Easter recess, political criticism is sure to mount. And the battle over Kosovo produced a new confrontation with Russia and showed fresh signs of spilling into neighboring countries.

Hungarian authorities halted a Russian government convoy that was supposedly bringing humanitarian aid to Serbia but which included eight fuel tankers, five armored personnel carriers and numerous militarized jeeps.

Fighting in Kosovo spread into neighboring Albania for the third straight day yesterday, this time with the first recorded civilian casualties.

A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirmed that a Serbian shell slammed into the center of the Albanian town of Tropoje, killing two citizens. Twelve people were injured as 120-millimeter shells fell on four Albanian villages.

"There has never been any serious casualties before," said OSCE spokesman Andrea Angeli, speaking from the Albanian capital, Tirana. "This is certainly the most serious fighting yet."

Still, NATO leaders expressed confidence that 19 days of airstrikes were taking a toll. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana hinted, "There is some cracking up in the military and the entourage of Milosevic."

Intelligence reports indicated that Milosevic is preparing to fire the head of Yugoslavia's navy.

Those positive signs were tempered by continuing difficulties with the military operation. NATO officials said the air campaign slowed considerably yesterday, in deferance to the Serbian celebration of Easter but also because of thick, low-hanging clouds that obscured targets.

In the four recent days of good weather, NATO planes did as much damage as during the 15 days of heavy cloud cover, a NATO diplomat conceded.

NATO warplanes focused their attacks in and around Kosovo's regional capital, Pristina, striking the airport, industrial targets, fuel depots and two radio relay towers.

Yugoslavia's official news agency Tanjug reported that a NATO missile had slammed into a residential area of Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, last night, causing significant damage but no casualties.

Relief flights stepped up

Humanitarian operations moved into high gear, with 108 NATO relief flights reaching Albania and Macedonia in 24 hours.

NATO also continued its verbal campaign against Milosevic, revealing aerial photographs of freshly turned earth at the Kosovar town of Pusto Selo, which NATO spokesman Jamie Shea indicated could be a mass grave.

"We're going to find more and more evidence of mass graves, mass executions and some pretty horrific stories," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen predicted.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters that about 400,000 displaced ethnic Albanians are barely surviving in the cold, wet mountains and woods inside Kosovo.

Friction continued to mount between NATO nations and Russia, which ardently opposes airstrikes against its traditional ally. Shea acknowledged yesterday that Hungary, one of NATO's newest members, had halted an alleged humanitarian convoy of 80 Russian trucks on its way to Yugoslavia.

Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu complained bitterly on Russian television about the delay, but NATO diplomats said they had no doubt the convoy contained military aid, noting that the shipment was put together by a Russian general.

Russia had been warned

White House officials had quietly warned their Russian counterparts of "serious consequences" if they try to rearm Yugoslav forces, but NATO diplomats tried to downplay the gravity of the Russian convoy.

"We're not talking about SA-6 or SA-12 [anti-aircraft] missiles," one diplomat said yesterday. "Eight fuel trucks are not going to make a world of difference."

But with Congress returning to

Washington, much of the Sunday talk wars appeared to be political.

Facing down criticism that the Clinton administration entered the air war unprepared for the consequences, Cohen, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott fanned out to the Sunday morning television shows to tell the public that NATO does have detailed plans to launch a ground attack in Kosovo.

Using remarkably similar language, all three evoked classified NATO contingency plans that called for at least 70,000 troops to fight their way into Kosovo and as many as 200,000 to challenge Milosevic on Serbian territory.

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