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Clinton Sets U.S. Kosovo Commitment at 4,000 Troops

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 1999 – One way or another, American service members may soon become involved in Kosovo, the southern Serb province where ethnic Albanians are struggling for independence.

About 4,000 U.S. troops will be part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force the alliance plans to deploy if the warring parties reach a settlement. If ongoing peace talks fail, however, about 260 U.S. combat and support aircraft may be called upon to take part in planned NATO strikes against Serb military targets.

President Clinton announced Feb. 13 in his weekly radio address that the United States would commit about 4,000 personnel to implement peace in Kosovo. He said the overall goal is to stop the fighting now, rather than later.

"America has a national interest in achieving this peace," he said. "If we wait until casualties mount and war spreads, any effort to stop it will come at a higher price under more dangerous conditions. The time to stop the war is right now."

The United States and its allies want to end the fighting that has killed 2,000 people in the past 11 months. "If the conflict persists," the president said, "there likely will be a tremendous loss of life and a massive refugee crisis in the middle of Europe."

Clinton linked U.S. security to European security and said the Kosovo conflict threatens an entire region. The allies aim to prevent hostilities from spilling over into neighboring nations or involving Greece and Turkey. They're also concerned the fighting could reignite conflict in Bosnia.

NATO forces helped end the Bosnian war, Clinton said, and lessons learned there must be applied to Kosovo. "In this volatile region, violence we fail to oppose leads to even greater violence we will have to oppose later at greater cost."

The six-nation Contact Group has given Serb authorities and ethnic-Albanian separatists until Feb. 20 to reach a peace agreement. The factions have been meeting in Rambouillet, France.

NATO and Russia have offered a comprehensive plan to restore peace and return self-government to Kosovo, Clinton said. If the talks succeed, he said, NATO plans to deploy peacekeepers "to give both sides the confidence to lay down their arms." European nations would send the bulk of the force, about 23,000 troops, he said.

Great Britain has committed 8,000 troops and dispatched ships bearing heavy equipment that are due in the region by the end of the month. French troops already stationed in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, serving as part of the U.N. verification mission extraction force, will form the nucleus of a 5,000-strong French contingent. Germany and Italy also have announced a commitment to contribute forces.

Before America deploys troops, however, Clinton said there must be a strong peace agreement calling for an immediate cease-fire, rapid withdrawal of most Serbian security forces, and demilitarization of the Kosovo Albanian insurgents. "NATO's mission must be well defined, with a clear and realistic strategy to allow us to bring our forces home when their work is done," the president said.

If the peace talks fail, NATO is prepared to take military action, Clinton said. "NATO has authorized air strikes if Serbia fails to comply with its previous commitments to withdraw forces and fails to support a peace accord. At the same time, we've made it clear to the Kosovo Albanians that if they reject our plan or continue to wage war, they will not have our support."

An activation order for air strikes that NATO approved last fall remains in effect. An air campaign would involve about 430 combat and support aircraft, more than half provided by the United States, according to Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. Most of the U.S. planes that would take part are based in Europe, where they are prepared to execute a mission within 48 hours of notification, he told reporters here Feb. 16.

Depending on how the talks progress this week, Bacon said, NATO authorities will decide whether to move more aircraft into the area. If deployed, some U.S. aircraft such as B-52s and B-2s would fly directly from the United States. Others such as F-117s would have to be pre-positioned in Europe to take part in an air operation.

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