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Members of NATO Authorize Strike Against Serb Province

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post

Moving to back diplomatic brinkmanship with a credible threat of force, NATO voted early Tuesday to authorize airstrikes against Yugoslavia if President Slobodan Milosevic does not withdraw security forces from Kosovo within 96 hours.

The vote came as President Clinton announced in New York that Milosevic had met several of the key international demands, but Clinton said Milosevic's actions would be closely monitored.

"Let me be very clear," Clinton said, "Commitments are not compliance. Balkan graveyards are filled with President Milosevic's broken promises."

In Washington, a Clinton administration official said Milosevic told U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke that he would comply with the demand that he pull back his security forces, which he dispatched to Kosovo in February to try to crush ethnic-Albanian guerrillas fighting for independence; allow access to aid groups; and open negotiations with ethnic-Albanian leaders on "a pretty crisp time line."

In addition, the official said, Milosevic has agreed to accept up to 2,000 civilian observers who would monitor the agreement and allow unchallenged access to airspace over Kosovo for NATO planes to "give NATO eyes from above."

At the same time, however, the official said the Clinton administration had pressed for a NATO activation order that would permit Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, to launch airstrikes if Milosevic reneges on these commitments. "He has broken too many commitments and too many promises," the official said. "We don't trust him, and we don't want to take away the loaded gun."

Holbrooke flew here Monday night from Belgrade to brief the allies on whether Milosevic was prepared to halt a brutal military crackdown against separatist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia. The two men have held more than 50 hours of talks over the past week as NATO preparations for intervention gathered momentum.

After Holbrooke briefed the ambassadors, he returned to Belgrade for another meeting with Milosevic Tuesday at which he would make a final push to reach a settlement to avert NATO military action.

The decision by NATO's 16 member states was only the second time the alliance has authorized the use of force. The NATO ambassadors gave unanimous consent to an "activation order" that confers authority on NATO's military commander to launch an aerial campaign if Milosevic does not meet the demands before the deadline.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said the 96-hour hiatus was intended to give allied military commanders enough time to sort out logistical matters and "allow the negotiations to bear fruit." He said military pressure had clearly produced progress in the talks.

The Western alliance has assembled more than 400 aircraft to wage a sustained campaign against Yugoslavia if Milosevic refuses to accept demands that he withdraw his forces from Kosovo; permit ethnic-Albanian refugees to return to their homes; and allow humanitarian aid agencies unfettered access to the region.