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U.S. Army Apache Crashes Despite NATO ‘Readiness’

L.A. Times Staff
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

A U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter crashed on a training mission at Albania’s Tirana airport Monday night but the two crewmen escaped from the wreckage, a Pentagon official said.

“We have a report of an Apache that landed short of the runway at Tirana at about 10:40 P.M. local time (2140 GMT). Both crewmen were extracted or got out and I’m not aware of their condition,” said Army Col. Richard Bridges, a Pentagon spokesman.

The helicopters and their supporting troops and equipment were declared ready for action against Yugoslav forces for the first time today.

“The full package of the Apache (force) is now in Albania,” said Col. Konrad Freytag, NATO’s military spokesman. The helicopters and supporting ground-based rocket launchers have been deployed north of Tirana, near the border of the embattled Kosovo province in Yugoslavia.

Freytag said the helicopters can be called into action when Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, decides they are needed.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters this morning that completion of the Apache deployment brings total U.S. combat strength in Albania to 5,300.

Poor weather continued to hamper NATO warplanes beginning their second month of strikes throughout Yugoslavia, Freytag said. The German colonel called poor weather the single biggest disappointment and obstacle in the NATO campaign, saying it has slowed the NATO effort to take down Yugoslavia’s integrated air defenses.

“The weather has really extensively hindered our precision air operation,” Freytag said.

Nevertheless, NATO planes continued to pound away at fuel production and storage facilities, Yugoslav ground forces operating in Kosovo and key bridges, including the last surviving bridge in the city of Novi Sad in northern Yugoslavia. Shea said destruction of the bridge makes it far more difficult for Yugoslavia to supply fuel to its troops in the south.

Shea had no further detail on the visit by the head of the International Red Cross with the three American soldiers captured by Yugoslavia. He said the Red Cross official provided the soldiers with mail from home and took delivery of some of their letters home, but said he wanted a longer visit to assess their mental and physical health.

In Washington today, Congress, despite some criticism of NATO strategy, was preparing legislation that would exceed President Clinton’s request for $6 billion of emergency money for the air war against Yugoslavia. House Republicans were drafting a bill with a price tag of at least $11 billion, said House GOP aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters today that the $6 billion seemed adequate for meeting direct Kosovo-related expenses, Republicans were leading the way for more money to take care of longer-range needs.

Daschle said that the Senate might take up a another measure soon to exhibit Senate support for “expanding the effort if required.” But he doubted the Senate would support a stronger resolution to authorize the president to use “all necessary force” to prevail.