WASHINGTON -- Thousands of NATO troops could be dispatched along the Albanian-Yugoslav border to keep fighting in the volatile Balkan province of Kosovo from igniting a regionwide war, an alliance official said yesterday.
The force of 7,000 to 23,000 soldiers, aimed at preventing any cross-border attacks by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav military, is among several military options being developed by NATO planners as Serb security forces continue scorching assaults against ethnic Albanian separatists.
Another option would use NATO air power to halt any Yugoslav military flights over or near the embattled province, said the alliance official, who spoke from Brussels on condition of anonymity. NATO has accelerated planning, aiming to have options ready by mid-June.
Increasing economic pressure while the military planning continues, the United States and Europe imposed a ban on new private investment in Yugoslavia yesterday as well as a freeze on any assets held abroad by the Belgrade government.
"Clearly, we believe this is a deteriorating situation," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said before the sanctions were announced. "This is a situation that is dangerous, that affects the security of the world and particularly the security of Europe," he said.
Kosovo, an enclave of about 2 million people where Serbs are outnumbered 9-to-1 by Muslim ethnic Albanians is a region of Yugoslavia considered sacred ground by Serb nationalists. It has long been viewed as the flash point for a Balkanwide conflagration that could involve Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and possibly Turkey.
Now that nightmare possibility looms closer as Albanian separatists get reinforcements and weapons from abroad and Yugoslav authorities respond with what U.S. officials are calling a violent replay of the earlier Serb campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. Fleeing the fighting, civilian refugees by the tens of thousands are spilling over the border from Kosovo into Albania.
American and European leaders hope that a combination of threats and economic pressure will compel Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to restrain his forces and try to reach a diplomatic solution with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership.
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and other NATO defense ministers meet Thursday and Friday in Brussels. Alliance foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, meet Friday in London.
"I very much hope President Milosevic is listening to what is being said. This is his last warning," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
Having watched the carnage in Bosnia continue for four years while the West stood by and talked tough but withheld any tough action, the Europeans claim to have learned a meaningful lesson about how to act toward Milosevic.
"If necessary, we must be prepared to move early and move hard," said a British official.
The U.N. measure may draw opposition from two permanent members of the Security Council: Russia, a longtime Serb ally, and China, which opposes interference in other countries' internal affairs.
In laying the groundwork for stepped up military action in the Balkans, the British are moving out in front of the White House, which has yet to unite the various branches of the U.S. government behind action in Kosovo.
"There is no imminent decision to involve U.S. military forces in any way, but everything is on the table," a White House official said yesterday.
In Congress, restiveness has been growing over the open-ended U.S. military presence in Bosnia, which is aimed at preserving the stability achieved in the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Later this week or next week, some Senate Republicans are expected to try to attach an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would force the president to withdraw U.S. troops from Bosnia.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, warned yesterday that strong action was necessary in Kosovo, but held back on the question of sending in troops.
"If we don't do something pretty quickly stronger than what we've done so far, we're going to have the same kind of disaster occurring in Kosovo that we had in Bosnia," Lott said. "Unless something changes, we are going to have to look at more drastic actions."
But, he added, "I don't think it's time for us to talk about deploying troops, and I don't know exactly where the Senate would be on that issue."
The possibility of U.S. military action to prevent large-scale fighting over Kosovo has existed since 1992, when then-President George Bush warned Milosevic that the United States was prepared to act decisively to halt a violent Yugoslav crackdown in Kosovo that could trigger a wider war.
Clinton repeated the warning after he became president. In recent months, the administration has insisted that U.S. policy has not changed but has refrained from explicitly repeating the warning.
The NATO official interviewed from Brussels said the possibility of sending troops to the Albanian border with Yugoslavia is the military option being most seriously considered at the moment because of the possibility that Yugoslav forces could mount across the border into Albania. The aim would be to create significant deterrent force." Other, smaller-scale options include replacing the sparse United Nations trip-wire force in nearby Macedonia with a more robust NATO presence.
The use of air power would be similar to what the allies have done in carving out no-fly and no-drive zones in in northern and southern Iraq. In the Yugoslav case, it would prevent attack helicopters from being used against Kosovo.
Pub Date: 6/09/98