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NATO, U.S. Issue Warnings Of Air Strikes Against Serbs

By Bradley Graham

With peace talks stalled, the United States issued loud warnings Thursday that NATO is preparing airstrikes against Serbian forces in and around the province of Kosovo and was reported to be pressing NATO allies to accept a much quicker escalation of military action than previously planned.

International mediators in Paris prepared to shut down the negotiations that were intended to end a year of conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, staging a one-sided signing ceremony that formalized agreement to the peace terms by the Kosovar Albanians but also dramatized the Serb refusal to embrace them. Diplomats close to the process said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, will be given another deadline of up to a week to sign the proposed accord, and international mediators may make further attempts to meet with him in Belgrade this weekend.

In the event of an attack against Milosevic’s forces, U.S. officials were urging allies to allow for an uninterrupted transition from an initial wave of cruise missile and precision bombing into a larger assault by American and European warplanes, according to American and European sources. A Serbian military buildup in the Kosovo region has increased U.S. concerns that Milosevic could respond to NATO bombardment by going on the offensive, the sources said. In that event, U.S. officials want to ensure that NATO forces can avoid any pause and expand rapidly into a sustained, large-scale attack.

After five months of threats of NATO military action aimed at compelling Milosevic to make peace in Kosovo, U.S. officials indicated that, this time, final preparations are underway for bombing Yugoslav military targets. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters the crisis over Kosovo hasentered a “decisive phase.” And Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright warned that NATO is ready to act in the face of Milosevic’s refusal to settle.

Members of Congress continued to express skepticism about the military plan, even after President Clinton’s senior national security advisers traveled to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers. Many Republicans and some Democrats complained that too many questions remain unanswered about the possibility of NATO airstrikes, which could be followed by a commitment of U.S. ground forces to a peacekeeping operation.

Expressing “significant reservations” about the administration’s plans, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., arranged for a meeting with Clinton Friday and moved to schedule debate Monday on a bill that would bar use of funds to send U.S. troops into Kosovo until the operation is authorized by Congress.

Despite the misgivings, defense officials said Serbian targets already have been selected. Six U.S. warships armed with long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles were on alert in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas and about 200 American attack and support jets were standing by in a NATO force of 400 aircraft.

“There is a distinct possibility we will lose aircraft in trying to penetrate those defenses,” the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee.