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NATO Reconsidering Ground Forces

By William Drozdiak

and Thomas W. Lippman
THE WASHINGTON POST -- As NATO heads of government gathered for a 50th anniversary summit meeting dominated by the crisis in Kosovo, President Clinton Thursday joined the leaders of France and Britain in supporting dispatch of an international military force into Kosovo without the explicit assent of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Conditions under which the alliance should consider sending ground troops into Kosovo were expected to be a major subject of discussion in a three-hour emergency session set for Friday morning by NATO’s 19 heads of government seeking to define their options in the next phase of the conflict with Yugoslavia.

The allies so far have insisted that ground troops would only be introduced in a “permissive environment,” meaning with the avowed consent of the Yugoslav government. But with Milosevic still rejecting foreign troops despite 30 days of bombing, the leading NATO powers have been exploring ways an international force could supervise the return of ethnic Albanian refugees to their homes in Kosovo even in the absence of Belgrade’s cooperation.

As the allied leaders gathered here to ponder their next moves, Russia’s special envoy and former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin held extensive talks in Belgrade with Milosevic and later told reporters that the Yugoslav leader is ready to accept an “international presence” in the embattled Serbian province under United Nations auspices. But it was unclear whether this meant Belgrade would budge from its refusal to accept foreign troops or whether it only referred to unarmed observers.

With NATO air strikes heading into a second month and Milosevic showing no signs of backing down, allied leaders were expected to consider fresh ways to augment an intensified bombing campaign now being carried out by more than 1,000 aircraft, but which has nonetheless failed to deter Serb forces from pressing ahead with the mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians.

After meeting Clinton at the White House, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana expressed satisfaction with the air operation so far. He said allied warplanes have carried out some 9,000 sorties over the past four weeks, significantly weakening Yugoslav air defenses, command and control systems and the capacity to produce fuel and ammunition.

But in many respects, the bombing campaign has fallen short of its key objectives. NATO air strikes have failed to prod Milosevic into calling off his crackdown in Kosovo and accepting a peace settlement that would restore autonomy to ethnic Albanians. While Serb forces have consolidated their grip over the province, the mass expulsions of refugees have come perilously close to destabilizing the neighboring states of Albania and Macedonia.

When Milosevic and his forces refused to buckle after the first few days of bombing, NATO commanders declared their strategy would shift from coercion to attrition. Now, there is talk within the alliance about pursuing a sustained bombing campaign to soften Yugoslav forces and prepare the way for allied ground troops to enter Kosovo in what NATO calls a “non-hostile environment.”