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NATO Air Strikes Imminent

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 24, 1999 – On the brink of what are heralded to be swift and severe NATO air strikes, U.S. officials say its now up to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to avert military action.

"Milosevic knows the phone number of NATO," said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. "He knows where to call when he wants the strikes to stop."

Diplomacy has failed to resolve the Kosovo crisis, leaving NATO no choice but to use force, Bacon declared at a March 23 Pentagon briefing. "President Milosevic's tolerance for diplomacy is pretty clear -- it's nil."

A NATO force of 350 to 400 aircraft, including about 200 U.S. planes, is poised to launch an extensive campaign within hours of receiving orders, Bacon said. Six U.S. ships capable of launching Tomahawk missiles are positioned within range of Yugoslavia. "We are much closer to military action now, than we were several hours ago," he told reporters.

The United States is not planning to deploy any more planes, Bacon added. The force now in Europe is well trained, well led, well armed and capable of achieving its goals, he said.

"We have said all along that if diplomacy fails, NATO is ready, able and prepared to act," Bacon said. "Without getting into details as to timing or targets, [NATO] Secretary General [Javier] Solana now has that ability to make the decision and he will make it at the appropriate time." (Later that evening, Solana gave NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, authority to launch the operation, Pentagon officials said.)

Bacon noted that the United States would not commit ground troops into Kosovo unless there is a peace agreement. "We won't go into a fierce environment, we will only go into a permissive environment," he said. "That policy has not changed."

NATO announced March 22 that the alliance had decided to initiate a longer air campaign than originally planned, thus giving NATO forces the flexibility to carry out a "coherent and seamless air campaign," to achieve its military goals," Bacon explained.

Force is always seen as a last resort, Bacon stressed. "We have sought every alternative to force and been rejected time after time by the Yugoslavians," he said. "This is a country that has led to a cancer of instability throughout the Balkans for seven or eight years. Europe is tired of this. The countries around Yugoslavia feel threatened by what's going on there. It's something that's disturbing to all the NATO allies."

Two round of peace talks in Paris and a last ditch effort by a U.S. special envoy, have failed to end the Kosovo dispute, Bacon noted. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke left Yugoslavia earlier in the day, he said, bound for Brussels to brief NATO's North Atlantic Council on the results of what proved to be an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to Belgrade.

Milosevic failed to take this last chance to reach a peaceful settlement, Bacon said. "How many chances do you give somebody to make the right choice. He has rejected every chance he's been given so far."

While the Kosovar Albanians have chosen peace, Milosevic has chosen aggression, Bacon said. About 40,000 Serb soldiers, 400 tanks, several hundred armored personnel carriers and several hundred artillery pieces are currently in or around Kosovo.

Right now, Bacon said, Serb troops are slowly, systematically "crushing" their opposition, the Kosovar Liberation Army. "Although there is some opposition from the KLA, basically, our information is that the Serb forces are moving in with considerable brutality at this time."

Last fall, Bacon noted, the Yugoslav army was reluctant to get involved in an anti-guerilla campaign in Kosovo. "That's one of the reasons why Milosevic depended on his special police forces rather than on his army," he explained. "The army was a relatively late arrival. However, when they did arrive, they arrived in force, and they've continued to arrive in force -- and that's the problem."

The Albanian separatists, on the other hand, have signed the Ramboulliet peace agreement. They've agreed to a cease fire and standing down their forces. "The KLA want to end this fighting," Bacon said. "They want to stop having the Serbs attack them, to stop shooting their fathers and their sons, and killing their wives and daughters. They want them to stop burning their villages and destroying their houses."

Should they be ordered, NATO strikes would be aimed at halting the Serb attacks. "The military goal of air strikes would be to diminish or degrade the ability of the Serb forces from attacking the Kosovar Albanians," Bacon said. "We hope that if military action is used, ... that relatively quickly the Serbs will realize they've made a mistake and that diplomacy would have been a better solution than the use of force."

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DoD News Briefing, March 23, 1999

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