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NATO Deploys Helicopters, Airlifts Kosovo Refugees

By James Gerstenzang and Chris Kraul
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Kosovo

Clearing skies over Belgrade allowed NATO to strike Yugoslavia's 1st Army headquarters, an ammunition plant and other targets Sunday, as the Pentagon announced plans to deploy Apache attack helicopters and ground-based missiles for the first time in the Kosovo theater.

Allied aircraft delivered strikes around the capital of Yugoslavia on Easter morning, and after nightfall to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

NATO and other European countries pressed forward with a plan to establish protective enclaves for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees in Albania, Macedonia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Separately, nations in the Atlantic lliance agreed to accept nearly 100,000 refugees from the mbattled Serbian province. NATO said the United States would accept 20,000; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said only that the U.S. would accept “several thousand.”

The dispatch of the 24 AH-64 Apaches, the Army's main attack helicopter, could fuel the debate over the use of combat troops to bring the war directly to Yugoslav troops and Serbian police units on the ground in Kosovo. Using helicopters is riskier to U.S. forces than relying on cruise missiles and higher-flying warplanes.

The Pentagon presented the dispatch of the Apaches with their armor-killing capabilities as an expansion of the air war rather than a move toward the use of ground troops, although about 2,000 soldiers will be deployed to support the helicoptermission.

The humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, grew unabated. A United Nations refugee official, Karen Koning AbuZayd, predicted that the number of Kosovo refugees could double to nearly 750,000 by Tuesday.

Refugees arriving Sunday in northern Albania from southern Kosovo said uniformed Serbian forces had been carrying out a house-to-house reign of terror.

One of the refugees, Illirana Zhubi, looked pleadingly into a stranger's eyes and sobbed in anguish: “You don't know what has happened here. You don’t know what has happened here with us.”

She said her husband, a jeweler, was among six men she saw lined up Thursday and shot in the back by uniformed Serbs. As she watched, they finished him off with a bullet to the head. She said they cut off his hands and set the house on fire. Her 14-year-old niece, hiding in the basement, also was probably killed by the fire, she said.

There was no way to independently confirm such reports, but it matched other refugee stories of atrocities as Serbian forces empty Kosovo towns of their ethnic Albanian populations.

The outlines of a temporary approach to the refugee crisis began to emerge Sunday. Albright, in Washington, and the European Union's commissioner for humanitarian affairs, Emma Bonino, in Brussels, said that, for political and operational reasons, the alliance wants to avoid a large-scale resettlement.

Despite the NATO countries' refugee resettlement plans, most of ethnic Albanians plan to return.