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NATO Air Strikes Imminent

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 1998 – Nearly 260 U.S. planes will be among the 430 allied aircraft NATO may soon send into action, according to U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

NATO defense leaders are nearly ready to approve an activation order for a "significant air force" to conduct "serious missions" against Serb forces, Cohen told reporters en route Oct. 7 to the Persian Gulf.

Earlier in the day, the secretary briefed individual Congress members on the situation and met with the President Clinton, who voiced American support for NATO's planned military action to stop the violence in the Southern Serb province.

Once NATO gives the final go-ahead, a senior defense official said, U.S. planes would launch from the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, now stationed in the Mediterranean. The ship carries about 72 planes, more than half combat aircraft, and the rest tankers, reconnaissance and other support aircraft.

Land-based F-15 and F-16 fighter jets would launch from bases in Germany and Italy, the official said. All NATO nations, except Iceland, which has no military forces, have offered to contribute military assets for the mission.

The NATO activation order is the final step in a long process necessary to achieve consensus, the official explained. Once approved, it gives the military commander, -- in this case, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, supreme allied commander Europe -- political permission to use force. Clark then makes the tactical decision on how and when to conduct the operation.

Cohen said the air campaign goal will be twofold: to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1199 and to "diminish his capacity to inflict damage upon the Kosovo people."

The secretary declined to discuss potential Serb targets, but said air strikes "could include cruise missiles and an entire range of things." The message should be clear that steps are being taken to conduct very serious air operations against Milosevic's Serb forces, he said. "We're hoping that won't be necessary, but the choice is going to be his."

Only full compliance with the U.N. resolution will halt NATO strike plans, Cohen noted. The Security Council has called for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Serb police and military forces, and the beginning of negotiations for a political settlement. The resolution also calls on Milosevic to allow humanitarian aid to reach the nearly quarter-million displaced ethnic Albanians in the Southern Serb province.

While the Serb leader has withdrawn some forces, Cohen said, Milosevic "can't just pick and choose" which aspects of the resolution to comply with. "He has to accept 1199 in its entirety," the secretary said. "That's what we're insisting on at this point."

Despite some political disagreement among NATO allies over the planned air strikes, Cohen said he's confident consensus will be reached. NATO defense ministers who met recently in Portugal expressed strong consensus that action had to be taken if there is no response by Milosevic, he said. The secretary predicted disagreements in the political realm would resolve themselves within the next couple of days.

Cohen departed the nation's capital for a seven-day, six- nation swing through the Middle East, knowing the trip might be cut short if, as expected, NATO authorities give the final go-ahead in the next few days.

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