NATO trims estimates of damage to Yugoslavs

Milosevic's military remains capable of keeping him in power


DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia -- In the two weeks since NATO forces arrived in Kosovo, alliance officials have scaled back their initial estimates of the damage inflicted by the 78-day air campaign on the Yugoslav army, which they concede remains a force capable of maintaining Slobodan Milosevic's hold on power.

While NATO and Pentagon officials stand by their claims to have significantly damaged the Yugoslav army and special police, they acknowledge that the units that withdrew from Kosovo a week ago were clearly not as hobbled as they had believed.

And those forces, they acknowledge, could be employed by Milosevic again, at least to squelch domestic disturbances within Serbia, and at most to either foment or face down a separatist threat from Yugoslavia's lesser republic, Montenegro.

"It's exaggerated," said a former senior allied official, who spoke to top European leaders in recent days, referring to NATO's early damage estimates. "NATO hit a lot of dummy and deception targets. It's an old Soviet ploy. Officials in Europe are very subdued. No one's pounding their chest over this."

Here in Djakovica, for example, NATO obliterated the Yugoslav army's World War II-era base. In what was left of the motor pool, 18 military vehicles, including one armored personnel carrier, were scattered yesterday in charred, twisted heaps.

Up close, however, it was clear that most of the destroyed vehicles were wrecks, gathered by the Serbs for repairs or junking. NATO's warplanes had not destroyed Yugoslavia's front-line fighting vehicles, but rather a junkyard.

From blown-out military barracks to exploded fuel tanks, the devastating results of NATO's bombing are obvious all across Kosovo. But the damage brought down on the Yugoslav army itself -- particularly the tanks, armored fighting vehicles and artillery batteries at its core -- is less clear.

Even in those places where allied bombers launched intense attacks -- in Junik and the villages around Mount Pastrik in southern Kosovo where Yugoslav forces had massed against the Kosovo Liberation Army in the last weeks of the war -- there are few signs of the scorched carcasses of tanks or other military equipment that NATO officials expected to find.

"Nothing is here," Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserick, a spokesman for the German peacekeeping troops based in Prizren, said yesterday. "We found positions. We found bomb damage in those positions, but we didn't find any vehicles or tanks."

While some vehicles were removed from Kosovo by Serb forces to break down for spare parts, NATO officials acknowledge that fewer pieces of military hardware were destroyed than the alliance had first estimated.

NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said last week that the alliance had, for example, destroyed 110 of the roughly 300 tanks that the Yugoslav army had poured into Kosovo. But that number was less than the 150 tanks NATO believed it had destroyed in the waning days of the war, one senior NATO official said.

Clark and other NATO and Pentagon officials emphasize, however, that NATO's bombing ultimately accomplished its mission, which was to force Milosevic to end his brutal campaign against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and turn the province over to a NATO-led peacekeeping force.

"From our perspective, we're satisfied we destroyed enough stuff to get him to say, `Uncle,' " Navy Capt. Steve Pietropaoli, the spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a telephone interview.

But whether it was indeed the pain inflicted on his military that formed Milosevic's prime motivation for ending the standoff over Kosovo is an open question.

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