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In Kosovo talks, time running out; Yugoslav president continues to reject interim settlement; NATO airstrikes readied; As deadline nears, concessions worry ethnic Albanians


WASHINGTON -- Western nations and Yugoslavia engaged in down-to-the-wire Balkan brinkmanship yesterday as a deadline loomed this morning for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to either ratify a peace agreement with ethnic Albanians and allow NATO peacekeeping troops into Kosovo or face punishing airstrikes.

President Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac, after a meeting at the White House, warned Milosevic not to test the resolve of the NATO alliance.

Clinton said it would be a mistake to extend the deadline. If an agreement cannot be reached, "I don't think there is an option" other than force, he said.

But Milosevic, reflecting his reputation for high-risk defiance, refused to see an American envoy, Christopher Hill, who went to Belgrade yesterday to try to persuade him to accept a deal with the ethnic Albanians.

Milosevic said he would accept bombing rather than give up Kosovo.

His stance prompted pessimistic diplomats to say that airstrikes may be necessary to force Milosevic to bend.

Chirac said he and Clinton agreed that Milosevic cannot preserve Kosovo as part of Serbia unless he accepts the deal, which would grant substantial self-rule to the Albanians who make up 90 percent of the province's population.

In a final push for an agreement, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright flew late yesterday to Paris, where two weeks of talks between Yugoslav and Albanian representatives at nearby Rambouillet were scheduled to end at 6 a.m. (EST) today.

As a precaution, Western diplomats and aid workers began an evacuation from Yugoslavia yesterday in anticipation of possible airstrikes.

A senior U.S. official said there were no plans for Albright to journey on to Belgrade, particularly given the attitude Milosevic showed yesterday.

But if Yugoslavia were to give substantial ground in negotiations overnight, there is a possibility the secretary of state could meet with Milosevic in his capital to "clinch the deal," the official said, even if it meant briefly extending the deadline.

A deal would end months of escalating conflict in Kosovo that Western leaders fear could ignite a regionwide war.

Though Kosovo has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population and an Albanian guerrilla army fighting for independence, the province has been a powerful symbol of Serbian nationalism, one that Milosevic has used to boost his own political strength.

The compromise that both sides have been pressured to accept would increase autonomy and self-government in the province but would keep it within Yugoslavia, at least for three years.

To enforce it, NATO plans to lead a peacekeeping force of up to 30,000 troops in Kosovo -- including up to 4,000 Americans -- to ensure that Serbian forces are scaled back and barred from menacing the Albanian population and to prevent the Kosovo Liberation Army from filling the vacuum.

In an appeal to Milosevic, Clinton said the proposed deal offered the only way he could keep Kosovo within Yugoslavia.

Escalating airstrikes

If Milosevic fails to accept the agreement by the deadline, NATO is prepared to launch an escalating series of airstrikes. To back up the threat, the United States continued strengthening its forces in Europe by sending six B-52 bombers from a base in Louisiana to England.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana already has authority to launch attacks against Yugoslavia but is expected to consult beforehand with NATO ambassadors in Brussels and by telephone with key NATO leaders.

Diplomats have said all preparations for airstrikes have been completed. But they have refused to say how soon they would get under way.

The strikes would have two purposes, diplomats say: to pressure Milosevic into accepting the deal and to wreck the capability of Yugoslav forces to commit atrocities against Kosovo civilians.

The B-52 bombers are capable of firing 2,000-pound cruise missiles.

They are in addition to 51 other U.S. planes that are expected to arrive during the weekend, including 12 F-117 radar-evading Nighthawk fighters and 10 EA-6B Prowlers, designed to jam radar facilities with electronic bursts or destroy them with missiles.

More than 400 U.S. and NATO combat and support aircraft could take part in any bombing campaign, which Pentagon and NATO officials say would likely begin with 1,000-pound sea-launched missiles from three ships and one submarine in the battle group of the carrier USS Enterprise, now based in the Mediterranean.

Those ships are armed with hundreds of cruise missiles.

Any attack would first target Serbian air defenses and military communications centers before expanding to troop and armor concentrations, officials said. There are plans for both limited and phased bombing campaigns, which would begin on targets in Kosovo and expand to sites elsewhere in Serbia.

Milosevic has a "very robust" air defense system, said one NATO official, which includes some of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, the SA-7. Cruise missile attacks would attempt to neutralize such threats and pave the way for NATO aircraft to hit dozens of other military targets.

Nothing to say

Still, the Pentagon has been silent on what would happen if the Kosovo Liberation Army tried to take advantage of any attacks on Serbian targets by mounting attacks or moving into additional territory.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has said that NATO will not be "the KLA air force." But officials were silent yesterday on how the Pentagon would react to any renewed rebel moves.

"I don't think it is helpful for the United States or anybody else to lay out exactly what we are going to do," said Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman.

"I think in this case, being a little ambiguous is exactly the way we want it to be."

One NATO official said planners are speculating that the latest showdown with Milosevic will mirror the planned U.S. attack on Haiti in 1994, which was called off while planes were in the air when the Haitian military officers capitulated.

"We are now locked in a wait-and-see mode," the official said.

U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's top commander, has been in constant meetings with other defense officials, including Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, the British general who would run any peacekeeping force after an agreement is reached.

NATO would dispatch troops almost immediately after an agreement is reached, including 8,000 British soldiers, 5,000 French and nearly 2,000 U.S. Marines, who are aboard three U.S. ships in the Aegean Sea.

The Marines would serve for up to a month until about 4,000 U.S. Army troops arrive.

Pentagon officials say those troops, which would stay for at least three years, would come from elements of the 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," now based in Germany. The troops would be equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles.

But Clark's predecessor as the top commander of NATO, retired U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, said he is concerned about the "clarity" of the mission for the peacekeeping force.

Joulwan wonders about the roles of the various international groups: NATO; the Organization of Cooperation and Security in Europe, which has 1,700 verifiers on the ground to enforce last fall's peace agreement; and the Contact Group, the six nations that are overseeing Balkan peace efforts.

Troops from many nations

Leading members of NATO, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, along with some countries outside the alliance, plan to contribute troops to the peacekeeping force.

Russia, which opposes the idea of airstrikes if no agreement is reached, has not promised to join in a peacekeeping force, but its presence could be reassuring to Serbia, a longtime ally.

For days, the Kosovo Albanians have been expected to sign the agreement at Rambouillet. But as more concessions were offered to win Milosevic's acceptance, the Albanians and their sympathizers have become worried.

The latest proposed text would increase the number of troops that Milosevic is allowed to keep in Kosovo, according to James Hooper, a former U.S. diplomat who is executive director of the Balkan Action Council.

Perhaps more worrisome, it offers no clear way for the two sides to decide on the final status of Kosovo after the agreed-on three-year interim settlement. Thus it would tend to preserve the status quo and bar Kosovar independence, Hooper said.

A preamble to the text commits "the international community" to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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