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NATO Orders Air Strikes to End "Humanitarian Catastrophe"

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 24, 1999 – With the collapse of diplomatic efforts March 23, NATO ordered its top military commander to conduct air strikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's military and special police forces.

At about 11 p.m. in Brussels, Belgium, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana directed U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO supreme allied commander Europe, to initiate air operations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

"All efforts to achieve a negotiated political solution to the Kosovo crisis having failed, no alternative is open but to take military action," Solana said. "We must halt the violence and bring an end to the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding in Kosovo." NATO's goal is to prevent further human suffering and repression and violence against the civilian population of Kosovo, he said.

About 40,000 Serb army troops, 400 tanks and other heavy equipment are now systematically crushing ethnic Albanian opposition in northern Kosovo. Thousands of refugees are fleeing their homes as Serb forces burn villages.

Solana said the risks of action are outweighed by the even greater risk of inaction. He said NATO will do whatever is necessary to bring stability to the region.

"NATO is not waging war against Yugoslavia," Solana said. "We have no quarrel with the people of Yugoslavia, who, for too long, have been isolated in Europe because of the policies of their government."

NATO strikes will be aimed at weakening Serb army and special police forces in Kosovo, Solana said. "We must stop an authoritarian regime from repressing its people. We have a moral duty to do so. The responsibility is on our shoulders and we will fulfill it."

Solana said Yugoslavia has refused international demands that it accept an interim political settlement negotiated in Rambouillet, France. During those peace talks, Milosevic rejected the presence of NATO peacekeeping forces in Yugoslavia. Solana said "a viable political settlement must be guaranteed by an international military presence."

Serb officials have reneged on their October 1998 agreement to limit their army and special police forces in Kosovo, Solana said. They also have refused to end the excessive and disproportionate use of force in Kosovo.

"As we warned on the 30th of January, failure to meet these demands would lead NATO to take whatever measures were necessary to avert a humanitarian catastrophe," Solana said. He urged the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to remain firmly committed to the peace they chose in Paris and to refrain from provocative military action.

About 200 U.S. planes are among NATO's air armada of up to 400 aircraft set to conduct bombing raids from bases in Europe. U.S. ships positioned in the Adriatic Sea are expected to start the attack, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at key military targets in Yugoslavia.

In Washington, President Clinton explained why the United States must be involved in the operation during a speech to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Biennial Convention. He said U.S. interests are at stake as well as the credibility of NATO.

Taking action now will save lives in the long run, Clinton said. "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" he asked. "How many people's lives might have been saved? How many American lives might have been saved?"

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution supporting the NATO air strikes about three hours after Solana announced his decision to take military action.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Ken Bacon noted that Yugoslavia's substantial air defense system presents a serious threat to American and allied pilots. He said the Serbs have SA-6 and SA-3 missiles, about 2,000 mobile anti-aircraft guns and a range of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Yugoslavia air force has about 60 to 80 fighters, he added.

"Yugoslav air defense forces are well-trained and well-equipped, although their equipment is somewhat older," Bacon said. "Because Yugoslavia has been under economic sanctions for some time, it may not have been as well maintained as they would like.

"We've had a lot of experience against these weapons," Bacon said. "But every country and every air defense system presents its own challenges, and we take those challenges, very, very seriously."

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