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Yugoslav Leader Spurns Demands of NATO Commanders

January 20, 1999

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: January 20, 1999
Author: Guy Dinmore

Brandishing renewed NATO threats of airstrikes against Yugoslavia, the alliance’s top two generals held lengthy talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic today but made no progress in persuading him to meet demands aimed at stemming civil warfare in the Kosovo region, Western diplomats said.

“We spent seven hours spinning in circles; it was like a standard Communist Bloc meeting,” said one diplomat familiar with the talks. Afterward, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander, and German Gen. Klaus Naumann flew back to Brussels, where they will brief senior officials of the Western military alliance on Wednesday.

“Based on initial reports {about the Belgrade meeting}, we are not encouraged,” State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said last night in Washington. He said there are “no current plans” for any further missions to the Yugoslav capital.

Milosevic also refused to reverse his decision to expel William Walker, the American head of the international monitoring mission in Kosovo, who has accused Serbian police of massacring 45 ethnic Albanians in the southern Kosovo village of Racak last Friday. Walker was told Monday night that he had 48 hours to leave Yugoslavia, but today Milosevic extended the deadline by 24 hours.

Authorities here maintain that the 45 victims were separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas killed in clashes after opening fire on police. Late last night, the U.N. Security Council called for an immediate investigation into the killings and a reversal of the order to expel Walker. Meanwhile, special police units and army tanks attacked ethnic Albanian rebel positions in villages near Racak for a third day today. U.N. aid workers said several thousand civilians had been forced to flee and that about 700 were sheltering in forests in freezing weather. A Serbian police commander was shot and killed in the operation, and two policemen were wounded, according to local news reports. The fighting has shattered what remained of an unofficial truce in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia’s dominant republic, Serbia, in which the ethnic Albanian majority is demanding independence. More than 1,000 people were killed during a government offensive against separatist rebels in Kosovo last year. Diplomats here said Washington is still debating whether to pull Walker out or ignore the expulsion order in defiance of the Yugoslav government. Rubin today repeated the U.S. position that it is “unacceptable” for Milosevic to order Walker out of the country. “It’s hard to see how an independent verification mission can operate when the chief is expelled for reporting the truth,” Rubin said. European members of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which maintains the Kosovo Verification Mission, said Walker’s departure would put the monitoring operations in jeopardy. About 700 unarmed international observers are deployed in Kosovo as part of the mission. Milosevic also rejected demands that the U.N. war crimes tribunal based in The Hague be allowed to investigate the alleged massacre in Racak. Louise Arbour, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, was turned back at a Yugoslav border crossing Monday as she tried to enter Kosovo from Macedonia. Diplomats following events here say Milosevic’s hard-line stance has revived NATO’s option of mounting punitive airstrikes against Yugoslavia. They added that a final decision on such a course would depend on whether Belgrade government forces continue to attack ethnic Albanian villages. NATO had authorized airstrikes in October but backed off when Milosevic agreed to withdraw forces responsible for civilian repression in Kosovo and allow the international verification team into the province. In a tough statement on state television tonight, Milosevic gave little sign he would call off the latest offensive in the province. Milosevic said the government had the right to respond to “terrorist actions,” and he accused the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army of carrying out more than 500 attacks since the Oct. 13 pullback agreement. “Pressure on a sovereign state cannot be justified,” he said, referring to NATO threats of intervention. But a senior NATO official said Milosevic is making “a grave mistake” if he believes the alliance lacks the resolve to take military action. And today, before his meeting with Milosevic, Gen. Clark declared: “Trust me, this is going to be a very clear and very blunt message.” A NATO spokesman said the two generals would demand that Milosevic pull back special Serbian police units from Kosovo, as he had agreed to do in October. Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, was even blunter, saying in a BBC interview that NATO is “on the brink” of resorting to force and that only compliance by Belgrade with the October agreement would prevent it. Earlier this week, however, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said that airstrikes would be employed only a last resort. On Monday, Serbian police fought their way back into Racak and removed from a local mosque about 40 bodies found at the purported massacre site, taking them to a morgue in Pristina, the provincial capital. Officials here said that Yugoslav and Belarusan forensic experts had since established that the victims had not been executed at close range, as asserted by Walker. Making one concession to international demands, the Belgrade government said it would allow forensic investigators from Finland, who had been proposed by the OSCE, to examine the bodies. It was not clear when they would arrive. The same Finnish team went to Kosovo last year, but police prevented it from investigating an alleged massacre of about 20 villagers that provoked the initial threat of NATO airstrikes. Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman in Washington contributed to this report.

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