As peace talks continue, NATO readies endgame; Up to 30,000 foreign troops could enforce agreement between Serbia, Kosovo


LONDON -- The weather is cold, tempers are hot, and two wary armed camps don't want to give an inch.

But compared with other Balkan peacekeeping missions, the potential perils faced by a NATO-led force in the Serbian province of Kosovo should be more easily overcome, analysts say.

While talks between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians head toward a Saturday deadline, NATO planners are preparing for the endgame in a yearlong civil war that has left 2,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

On the one hand, NATO is ready to lead as many as 30,000 troops -- including up to 4,000 U.S. soldiers -- to police an eventual deal. Fearing a vacuum, NATO plans to dispatch troops quickly after a deal is signed, although most wouldn't arrive until early next month. Still, nobody wants combatants to harden their positions as the Balkan winter draws to a close.

"NATO is the only force in the world that can handle something like this," says Paul Beaver of Jane's Information Group, a leading publisher on defense and security issues. "If NATO can't bring peace to the Balkans, no one can."

On the other hand, NATO also remains prepared to bomb the Serbs into submission. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has repeatedly rejected proposals that foreign troops enter Serbian territory to enforce a peace accord.

Yesterday, another 51 U.S. airplanes were sent to Europe, bringing to 260 the number that would be ready for any action, including support craft.

Skepticism over bombing

While many believe that Milosevic is engaging in yet another game of Balkan brinkmanship and will back down, the bombing threat remains real, according to NATO planners.

"Bombing their way in doesn't get us anywhere," says Susan Woodward, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It doesn't satisfy the initial condition of the Americans that they go in only under consent, on the assumption that the risks are reduced substantially to their soldiers. They won't even go in if we have to bomb. Secondly, bombing means you haven't decided what the mission is."

Still, Kosovo isn't Bosnia, where tens of thousands died and three armies squared off during brutal fighting that was finally extinguished in 1995 by exhaustion, tough bargaining and the insertion of thousands of NATO troops. Bosnia's complex military and social worlds, coupled with forbidding terrain and a devastated infrastructure, posed unique and frightening challenges.

"This is much simpler," says Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "Kosovo is overwhelmingly Albanian, and the guys with the heavy guns are the Serbs."

Serbian security forces are trying to keep the province within Belgrade's grip. Ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for the Kosovo Liberation Army are demanding outright independence. While widespread fighting has diminished in recent months, the province has been subjected recently to one major massacre, with random killings, kidnappings and bombings.

Neither side is likely to get what it wants out of peace talks under way in Rambouillet, France. A draft deal envisions giving ethnic Albanians substantial autonomy in Kosovo but falls short of outright independence.

Kosovo would remain part of Serbia, and thus part of what's left of Yugoslavia -- Serbia and Montenegro. Most Yugoslav military forces -- dominated by Serbs -- would leave the region, with some 1,500 troops remaining to patrol borders. Some 2,500 Serb police also would remain.

But the rebel KLA and Serb paramilitaries face being disarmed, as international negotiators try to create a three-year cooling-off period in Kosovo.

NATO is putting together a well-armed Kosovo intervention force, backed by up to 9,000 British troops and 5,000 French soldiers. More than 2,000 NATO troops are in nearby Macedonia, prepared to extract international observers from Kosovo. U.S. Marines are also on standby.

'A leading option'

"Clearly, the Marines are a leading option to go in quickly," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters Tuesday.

A force of 2,200 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., is aboard three ships in the Mediterranean, just off southern Italy. Pentagon officials said they are uncertain whether the Marines would go overland in Humvees and trucks or fly into Kosovo.

These Marines, of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are also "special operations capable," with the training to handle a wide variety of tasks, from seizing an airport and sniper and intelligence operations to hostage rescue and humanitarian assistance.

While politicians remain wary of putting a firm deadline on how long peacekeepers would remain in Kosovo, analysts claim it would be at least three years. Establishing and training a local Kosovo police force is one element determining how long U.S. peacekeepers would remain, a State Department spokesman said Tuesday.

British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson appears likely to command the NATO-led force.

"He's the Prince of Darkness, a thinking paratrooper," Beaver says. "He is tough, intellectually very bright and adored by his fellow soldiers. He's a good politician as well and an ideal person to have there."

'Pretty robust stuff'

Beaver says NATO is prepared to lay down tough terms to both sides.

"All air defense systems must be turned off," he says. "There will be a 'no-fly' zone. They will have checkpoints and patrols. Any KLA with guns will have the guns and uniforms taken off them. The same with the Serbs. This is pretty robust stuff, real peacemaking stuff.

"If you threaten NATO, you are considered to be putting your life in danger," he adds. "You will be challenged, and if you haven't surrendered or put the weapon down, you will be dead. This is not playing around. This isn't taking sides."

Woodward says disarming both sides remains quite dangerous.

"The task is not to separate, which is a simple task, but rather to disarm and demilitarize," she says. "And we don't have much good luck internationally with that task prior to a political settlement."

Serwer maintains that NATO may face an even greater risk than gunplay, though. He claims the fate of Kosovo's Serb minority, outnumbered 9-to-1 by ethnic Albanians, could become a key ingredient that leads to success or failure.

While acknowledging that thousands of Serbs associated with the present local regime will leave, Serwer says it is crucial that other Serbs remain.

"If they start walking, you'll have NATO presiding over the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in Kosovo," Serwer says. "That will be a disaster, awful."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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