NATO may `pause' in air attacks

Alliance could bend if Serbs begin pullout, accept peacekeepers

Clinton hints flexibility

Diplomacy, attacks heightened as powers consider protectorate

May 04, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Jonathan Weisman | Mark Matthews and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that NATO could allow a "pause" in the bombing of Yugoslavia if the Serbs "at least begin" to withdraw their forces from Kosovo and accept an international force to protect ethnic Albanians.

In a more vigorous push for a diplomatic solution, Clinton hinted that NATO is prepared to show new flexibility in ending the war. He spoke as diplomats from the United States, Russia and other major powers neared agreement on terms that would allow for a United Nations-approved protectorate in Kosovo.

These new terms would give Russia and other countries outside NATO a larger role in a planned NATO-led security force that would enter Kosovo after Yugoslavia had met NATO's conditions for ending the bombing. Russia could have the major role in areas where Serbs predominate.

The stepped-up diplomacy in Washington and Europe came as a NATO bombs and missiles struck yesterday at a wider range of targets in Yugoslavia. The heightened intensity, intended to increase pressure on the government of President Slobodan Milosevic, is having a growing effect on Serbian civilians as bombs have knocked out power and strayed into residential zones.

Speaking at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Clinton cited points that offered room for negotiation.

"We have lived through now nearly a decade of a systematic attempt to uproot, subjugate and destroy people because of their ethnic and religious heritage," he said. "And we could have a bombing pause if it's clear that it will be in aid of that larger purpose of reversing the Serbs' ethnic cleansing and return refugees to an autonomous Kosovo."

Clinton met late yesterday with Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Moscow's special envoy to the Balkans, who is trying to mediate the conflict but has been unable to wring concessions from Milosevic.

The White House meeting opened a week of U.S. diplomacy that will include a midweek presidential trip to Germany and Brussels, Belgium, even as the NATO bombing rages on.

"We're getting closer to a diplomatic solution," Chernomyrdin said after meeting with Clinton. "We had a very substantial discussion. We will continue that discussion. It's a very complicated issue. We will keep on working." He was to meet last night with Vice President Al Gore.

After the 90-minute meeting, a senior White House official said: "The Russian position is closer to ours than Milosevic's. We share the firm view that it is essential that the Kosovar Albanians be able to return with security. We have to create conditions in which the Kosovar Albanians can come home."

Seeking `durable peace'

Clinton told Chernomyrdin the situation required "a durable peace," the official said.

The White House meeting marked one of several efforts by the United States and its European allies to gain renewed Russian cooperation on the Balkans and pull Moscow from its Serbian allies. But a senior administration official cautioned: "These discussions with the Russians, with our allies, will continue over some days and weeks. This is not something that will result in some magical breakthrough in the next nanosecond."

While focusing attention on Chernomyrdin, the White House tried to nudge the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson into the background and to cut short the civil rights leader's efforts to mediate the conflict.

Jackson met with Clinton at the White House for more than an hour one day after obtaining the release of the three U.S. soldiers who were captured May 24 by Yugoslav forces along the Macedonian border. He carried a letter from Milosevic that U.S. officials rejected as containing little new.

Speaking to reporters, Jackson suggested that Clinton should make direct contact with Milosevic by calling to thank him for the release of the prisoners. He urged the release of two prisoners held by NATO to Serbian religious figures.

Jackson said such a phone call would be a small gesture comparable to last night's Orioles-Cuba game, one that might lead to broader diplomatic efforts.

"We have the power to fight," Jackson said. "The question is, do we have the strength to negotiate?"

A senior White House official, briefing reporters, rejected the idea of a phone call but did not rule out some reciprocal gesture, such as a prisoner release, saying: "That is a matter we've been considering for some time."

Over the weekend, Jackson called for NATO to reciprocate for the POWs' release with a pause in the bombing. He said in a television interview yesterday that by refusing, NATO demonstrates an "arrogance of power."

Clinton suggests terms

At his news conference, Clinton retorted: "Our air campaign cannot stop until Mr. Milosevic shows he is ready to end the nightmare for the people of Kosovo." While rejecting Jackson's proposal, Clinton spoke for the first time of the possibility of a "bombing pause," spelling out his conditions.

But Clinton did not shift U.S. policy substantively. The same terms had been spelled out by NATO as conditions for a bombing "suspension."

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