WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province, NATO's military commander met yesterday with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, offering a "blunt message" about Serbian aggression and holding out the possibility of launching allied airstrikes.
"Trust me -- this is going to be a very clear and a very blunt message," Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander, told CNN before leaving Brussels, Belgium, with German Gen. Klaus Naumann, head of the alliance's military committee.
But when the talks ended, the United States was downbeat.
"We are not encouraged. Initial reports are not encouraging," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "They are on their way to Brussels, and the North Atlantic Council will be meeting to receive a more comprehensive report."
Rubin said earlier that far from bowing to NATO's threats, some 400 Serbian military and police were undertaking "some type of military operation" yesterday near where the massacre of ethnic Albanians occurred.
The two NATO generals were dispatched with four demands that, if rejected, could cause NATO to launch military action.
The four demands are that Milosevic:
Cancel his expulsion of William Walker, a U.S. diplomat who heads the mission sent to verify the cease-fire in Kosovo and who has blamed Serbs for the massacre of ethnic Albanians;
Allow war-crimes investigators to investigate last week's massacre -- whose victims, Belgrade said, were armed guerrillas killed in battle;
Identify those responsible for ordering the massacre;
Comply with an October agreement to pull back Serb forces from the province.
At Sunday's meeting of NATO ambassadors, no country argued for an immediate resort to force, NATO officials said.
Clark laid out various options short of using force -- including repositioning aircraft closer to Yugoslavia and cutting the time between when an order is given and is carried out.
The ambassadors chose instead to have the two generals deliver a warning with the understanding that if Milosevic continued to defy it, military action would follow. If the generals returned to Brussels empty-handed, military strikes could come within days, but would probably not be immediate, a NATO diplomat said.
NATO and Pentagon sources say that Milosevic has violated the October agreement by moving additional police and military units into Kosovo and by failing to uphold promises that he would remove tanks, armored personnel carriers and other heavy equipment from the troubled region.
Last fall, NATO threatened bombing runs designed to "degrade" Milosevic's capability to wage war. The Serbian military has 1,400 artillery pieces, 1,270 tanks, 825 armored personnel carriers, 241 combat aircraft -- mostly Russian-made MiGs -- and 48 attack helicopters.
The discovery of the massacre scene followed several weeks of escalating skirmishes and the seizure by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) last week of eight Yugoslav soldiers, who were later released.
Milosevic, who often has sought to strengthen his domestic political position by catering to Serbian nationalism, is under increasing pressure at home. "He does seem to be a man in some desperate straits," a NATO official said.
Long accustomed to using repression as a tool, Milosevic doesn't recognize that it can be counterproductive, a diplomat said.
The ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the KLA have been intent on provoking the Serbian forces with the aim of drawing Western intervention, said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution, who formerly worked on the National Security Council staff. NATO leaders are reluctant, however, because they do not want to encourage the ethnic Albanians in their drive for independence.
Pentagon officials have long said they don't want NATO to be seen as the "cavalry" or the "KLA air force." The KLA, whose numbers have been as high as 2,000 fighters, also is trying to obtain anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, officials said, though there is no evidence it has been successful.
Though the Kosovars have provoked attacks from the Serbs, Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said the underlying problem has been Milosevic's refusal to grant the Kosovars "the rights they deserve." The United States favors increased autonomy for Albanians in Kosovo, though not independence.
In October, NATO planners devised four options, ranging from a short series of airstrikes to a heavy air-ground campaign. It was expected that an outrage like last weekend's massacre would trigger a "short shock" of airstrikes against about 20 targets, the diplomat said.
Officials said a NATO airstrike order from last fall is still in effect.
Pentagon officials cautioned that Milosevic has a formidable array of air defenses.
"He does have a robust anti-aircraft activity," said one Pentagon official, pointing to 1,850 air defense guns and 100 surface-to-air missiles sites.
But NATO leaders might decide on a heavier bombing campaign, opening up the question of whether ground troops would be required to prevent the the KLA from gaining control of the province.
"We need to make some clear statements here," said retired Gen. George A. Joulwan, Clark's predecessor as NATO commander, who favored airstrikes against Serbian military targets last year, along with the creation of a robust NATO force in neighboring Macedonia ready to ensure compliance with agreements and to save refugees from slaughter. "I don't know how many more massacres you need," Joulwan said.
Pub Date: 1/20/99