NATO approves 48,000 armed peacekeepers

Allies turn up heat on Yugoslav president


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO approved plans yesterday for a heavily armed peacekeeping force of 48,000 soldiers for Kosovo, part of a campaign by the alliance's top commander to increase political and military pressure on Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic.

The decision came as NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, began pushing to broaden the airstrikes in Yugoslavia.

Under the plan cleared by the 19 countries that make up the alliance, the peacekeeping force would not enter Kosovo until Serbian troops are withdrawn from the province, either as part of a formal peace settlement or because of the allies' relentless air attacks.

The decision does not mean, however, that all of the key details have been worked out. Many important questions remain, including which nations will contribute the troops. The United States is expected to provide about 7,000 soldiers.

Although some non-NATO nations are being asked to provide forces, well-armed NATO forces would serve as the "core" of the force, allied officials said.

The plan envisions stationing about 30,000 troops in neighboring Macedonia, positioning the allies to move swiftly into Kosovo if a settlement is reached.

But NATO officials noted that some of the forces could also play a combat role if the alliance decides to mobilize for a land attack. NATO officials estimated that an invasion force could number more than 150,000 soldiers and would have much more armored punch than the peacekeeping unit, which is likely to include tanks and helicopters as well as many combat engineers and support troops.

While spokesmen insist that NATO is not planning a ground invasion, Clark indirectly raised the issue during a closed-door briefing Friday for NATO delegates.

In a presentation about the overall NATO plan, Clark showed a slide listing the possible evolution of a military campaign against Yugoslavia: threat of airstrikes, use of airstrikes, threat of ground forces, use of ground forces.

"There was no discussion of the slide, but it was a bit striking," said an allied diplomat who attended the briefing. "The subliminal message seemed to be: `If you don't give me the freedom to conduct the air war, this is what we may face.' "

During that presentation, Clark was asked whether sending the peacekeeping force to the region could facilitate combat preparations. He said it could.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana has said the alliance plans to bring the war to a close and return ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo before winter. If NATO's bombing does not lead the Milosevic regime to accept the allies' terms, NATO officials will face a decision several weeks from now about whether to start preparing a ground force powerful enough to seize control of Kosovo.

The conduct of the air war has been a matter of increasing debate within the alliance. After NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy and a hospital in Belgrade, Italy and the Netherlands pushed for a broad review of the policy for selecting bomb targets.

Britain, France and the United States rebuffed the call, underscoring their backing for carrying out punishing airstrikes.

Clark has told critics that civilian casualties are inevitable despite NATO's extensive precautions, and he has pushed to broaden the attacks.

His aim is to focus the attacks on the Milosevic regime and its supporters, not just on Serbian forces in Kosovo. But some of the targets he would like to hit are politically sensitive to some NATO members who insist the alliance should not be perceived as waging war against the Yugoslav people.

In the bombing, some targets have been off limits. They include some factories that produce civilian as well as military goods and are run by supporters of the Milosevic regime.

Other sensitive targets include private television studios the Milosevic regime is using after NATO airstrikes hit the government broadcast center.

Broadening the targets also could involve attacks on the telephone system and command centers in historic sites. It might also include attacks on military targets in civilian neighborhoods.

Under current procedures, Clark must consult Solana before ordering an attack against a politically sensitive target. Solana, in turn, may consult allied nations.

But yesterday, the focus of the discussion was NATO's peacekeeping plans. The allies originally planned to dispatch a peacekeeping force of 28,000 troops to Kosovo under the terms of the proposals broached by the allies in Rambouillet, France.

After Belgrade rejected those proposals and NATO began airstrikes, allied officials concluded that the force would be woefully insufficient.

Not only would the force need to be stronger to impose order in war-torn Kosovo and repel possible Serbian threats, it also would need to perform new missions such as clearing mines and helping to rebuild the province's infrastructure.

NATO's plan specifically calls for 48,000 troops, but officials say the force could vary. Not all of the peacekeepers will be sent to the region before the war is ended.

Solana sent a confidential note to allied delegates explaining that 30,000 of the troops would be based in Macedonia. Previously, Macedonia, a poor nation overwhelmed by ethnic Albanian refugees, had agreed to allow no more than 16,000 troops; about 14,000 are there now.

Other troops will be sent to Bulgaria, Solana noted. Albania is also expected to be a staging ground. Other countries, including Hungary, a new NATO member, could be involved.

The alliance's decision on the force was taken under its "silence" procedure, which is designed to maximize the chances of achieving consensus. After a general plan for the force was circulated, NATO members were given until 5 p.m. yesterday in Brussels to object or attach conditions to their support. No members of the alliance took either step.

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