Bombing could end tomorrow

Halt to airstrikes hinges on beginning of Serbs' withdrawal

Timetable being drawn up

Clinton assures U.S. that `goal has been worth fighting for'

War In Yugoslavia

June 05, 1999|By Alison Mitchell | Alison Mitchell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton declared yesterday that he was "anxious to end the bombing" in Yugoslavia, and the Pentagon said the 10-week-old air war could end as early as tomorrow if Serbia begins a troop withdrawal from Kosovo.

As Washington became more optimistic that peace in the Balkans was in fact at hand, Clinton also sought to assure the American public that the nation had pursued a "goal that has been worth fighting for" -- stability in Europe and the return of more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians to their homes in Kosovo.

"There is an enormous opportunity to be seized here," the president said in the ornate East Room of the White House, "a chance to shift our focus from defeating something evil to building something good, a chance to work with our allies to bring a stable and prosperous and democratic southeastern Europe in which people are never again singled out for destruction simply because of their religious faith or their ethnic origin."

Though a NATO commander is to meet with his counterparts from Yugoslavia and Russia today to establish a timetable for withdrawal and verification procedures, NATO kept up its bombing campaign for a 73rd day -- hitting 51 targets in 24 hours, according to the Pentagon.

The strikes avoided Belgrade, hitting ammunition depots in Novi Pazar, Boljevac and Kursumlija and oil or gas installations in Sombor and Leskovac.

U.S. officials emphasized that most of the latest bombing was focused on forces in the field in Kosovo, and they said they had yet to see any evidence of Serbian withdrawals.

Serbian army units clashed yesterday with rebels trying to hold a strategic mountain called Pastrik. The Pentagon reported Serbian counterinsurgency operations against Kosovo separatist guerrillas but said the fighting seemed to have eased.

There were also reports that the Serbs were still forcing people from villages, officials said.

"I think it's important that we continue the military action against the military targets until we have some evidence that there are more than words here," Clinton said.

But there were clear signs that NATO was wrapping up its war effort and preparing to send a peacekeeping force into Kosovo.

For instance, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said the United States had suspended the deployment of 36 F-15 fighters to Turkey.

If the end of the air war looked imminent, the political debate raged on over just what NATO and Clinton had accomplished with a military campaign limited to an air war that would carry little risk of allied casualties.

Accord called vindication

Democrats said this week's diplomatic breakthrough was a vindication of the president's policy and persistence with the airstrikes.

"It's clear the air campaign has been effective," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader. "It has forced Milosevic to acknowledge that his options are running out."

Republicans, however, were critical of the accord, emphasizing that President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, indicted on charges of war crimes, had not been toppled.

"I think it is right and proper that all parties work to find peace and justice in the troubled Kosovo region," said the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert of Illinois. "However, we should not let exuberance get in the way of the hard reality that Slobodan Milosevic is still in control of Serbia."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican presidential contender, pointed to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as the model for the problems caused by leaving a dictator in power after a war.

"The fact that it was an air campaign virtually guaranteed that he would remain in power," he said of Milosevic.

U.N. role in peace

The Belgrade agreement says an international force in Kosovo would have "fundamental" NATO participation but be authorized by the United Nations.

Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska both warned that could mean that Russia and China could have too much control over the force.

Administration officials insisted that the force would have NATO troops at its core, with a NATO general in charge and a unified command structure.

Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, demanded that the president seek formal approval from Congress before sending any troops into Kosovo.

He also served notice that he would use confirmation hearings, planned for this month, on the nomination of Richard C. Holbrooke as chief American diplomat at the United Nations to scrutinize American policy in the Balkans.

`Misguided appeasement'

He said the committee would explore Holbrooke's "role and responsibility for this administration's misguided policy of appeasing Slobodan Milosevic." Holbrooke negotiated the Dayton peace accord that halted the war in Bosnia.

A senior administration official said Clinton did not need congressional approval for troops and estimated that the Kosovo force could be deployed within days.

At the State Department the spokesman, James P. Rubin, argued that the 10 weeks of NATO airstrikes had dealt a great deal of damage to Milosevic.

"Clearly he is weaker," he said. "He is indicted. His country has been set back decades economically. His military has been largely broken through the air campaign. The reputation of Serbia has suffered mightily around the world."

Administration officials said there would be no Western assistance to rebuild Serbia until it became more democratic, and they strongly suggested that Milosevic would have to be turned over in The Hague for prosecution before Serbia would be allowed access to such international financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

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