NATO raid dims lights of Belgrade

About 70% of Serbia's power out for 8 hours as transformers hit

Ominous sign for civilians

As attacks continue, Russian envoy due for White House talks

War In Yugislavia

May 03, 1999|By Bill Glauber and Tom Bowman | Bill Glauber and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- NATO pulled the plug on Belgrade and most of Serbia for nearly eight hours last night with an attack on a major power plant, despite a call to suspend the bombing campaign in appreciation of the release of three American prisoners of war.

The strike against the transformer at the coal-fired facility in Obrenovac, 18 miles southwest of Belgrade, plunged up to 70 percent of Serbia into darkness about 10 p.m. Crews restored power to parts of Belgrade about 5 a.m.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are to meet today with the Russian special envoy to the Balkans, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, as part of an ongoing effort to reach a diplomatic solution.

But the Clinton administration ignored an appeal by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who gained the release of the POWs, to halt the five-week bombing campaign and meet with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO's overnight attacks concentrated mainly on power plants, using "soft bombs" that cut electricity to much of the republic, including the capital, but caused minimal damage, Serbian officials said.

The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported that plant engineers said the weapons exploded above their targets, spraying graphite on switching equipment, short-circuiting the systems.

An Internet site that collates information from Yugoslav users on damage from NATO bombs said power stations at Drmno, Kostoloca, Bajina Basta, Obrenovac and Novi Sad had been hit, cutting power to millions of people from the Hungarian border in the north to the city of Nis in the south.

By knocking out power, NATO damaged a key component of civilian life in what appeared to be the start of a new phase in the air war.

Belgrade's water system, which uses electric pumps, was hampered by the strike at the power station. Hospitals and other key installations switched over to gasoline-powered generators, but gas is in short supply.

The noose is tightening around the country, with key bridges, roads and rail links destroyed. Yugoslavia's oil supply is running low after repeated bombings of major refineries, and NATO intends to impose an embargo. Fertilizer factories have been bombed, and Yugoslav officials say NATO is trying to starve the country.

In Novi Sad, the country's second-largest city, the three main bridges over the Danube River have been wrecked, crimping transportation.

Although many here say the repeated bombings have strengthened people's resolve, it is clear that NATO, during the early part of the campaign, focused its attacks on military installations.

After the latest attack, though, it appeared as if civilians might have to prepare for a harsher life.

In a recent leafleting campaign, NATO warned civilians that the attacks would grow more fierce. The alliance also sought to pin blame for the country's woes on Milosevic.

But with Milosevic's popularity rising, it was unclear who the civilians would ultimately blame for their discomfort.

Jackson said he doubted Milosevic or the Yugoslav people would bow to continued bombing. He carried a letter from Milosevic asking for a meeting with Clinton. The civil rights leader urged the president to accept. "If we do not, this could be a long, ugly, bloody, extensive war," he told NBC's "Meet the Press."

A Clinton statement

Clinton said he was "grateful" to Jackson for helping gain freedom for the soldiers taken prisoner by the Serbs on March 31 as they patrolled the Macedonian-Yugoslav border. "All of America is anticipating their safe return," Clinton said in a statement.

"As we welcome our soldiers home, our thoughts also turn to the over 1 million Kosovars who are unable to go home because of the policies in Belgrade," he added. "Today we reaffirm our resolve to persevere until they, too, can return, with security and self-government."

NATO's chief spokesman, Jamie P. Shea, said: "What [Milosevic's] got to understand is that the decision that's going to impress us most is the decision to order troops out of Kosovo" and "clearly and unambiguously" accept an armed international force.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen also brushed aside talk of a halt in the bombing campaign, saying Milosevic's release of the soldier's "cannot obliterate or overcome the stench of evil and death that has been inflicted in those killing fields in Kosovo."

Cohen said at least 4,000 ethnic Albanians reportedly have died in mass executions. "There may be tens of thousands more," he added, saying there are reports that bodies have been burned to eliminate evidence.

"It's curious that only in the past few days, where we have now intensified the air campaign, that suddenly he wants to seek some meeting with the president," Cohen said. "But we are going to intensify this campaign. The NATO summit that was recently completed was very solid and unanimous on this."

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