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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Europeans Hardened by Reports of Serb Atrocities

Opinion: Shock over treatment of ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav forces has kept antiwar protests small.

April 01, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIENA, Italy — Eight years ago, when the United States led an allied invasion to expel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, hundreds of thousands of pacifists took to the streets of Western Europe in protest, some of them shouting, "No blood for oil!"

Today's war is closer to home, but Europe's streets are quieter. A week into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, the antiwar rallies are tiny by comparison and strains within the alliance over the use of force appear to be minimal.

It's not that Western Europe has become more hawkish. Its people harbor deep concerns about military intervention, the potential spread of bloodshed beyond the Balkans, and the lethal risks to their own countries' pilots and soldiers.

But their shock over the atrocities attributed to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo weighs so heavily on European public opinion that opposition to the escalating allied response has in most countries been marginalized.

"In general, I do not believe in force as a means for settling conflicts, but we all share an obligation to stop what's happening in Kosovo, and what else can we do when negotiations have failed time after time?" said Giuseppe Gori Savellini, a first-year student at the University of Siena.

The 19-year-old Italian was milling with scores of Easter week tourists from across Europe in this hilltop Tuscan city. Most of those interviewed here sounded worried about NATO's first assault on a sovereign country but resigned that it was likely to continue.

Although the United States assumed the largest share of the early bombing raids on Milosevic's air defenses, other allies are making increasing contributions. Fourteen of NATO's 19 members are providing planes, pilots and equipment.

Germany, which until two years ago refused to send its military abroad because of sensitivities dating to the Nazi era, has sent its air force into combat for the first time since then. So has the Netherlands, one of whose F-16 pilots ruffled his nation's pacifist self-image by shooting down a Yugoslav MIG-29 plane in a dogfight on the first night of the campaign.

Greece, the only NATO member to call publicly for a halt in the bombing in order to pursue negotiations, has not pressed its opposition within NATO's closed sessions. Greece continues to provide logistical support by keeping ports and fuel lines open for allied forces, NATO officials say.

And despite its tense regional rivalry with NATO member Turkey, Greece lifted a ban Wednesday to allow a Turkish military plane to pass through its airspace with humanitarian aid for Kosovo refugees in Albania.

NATO's resolve is remarkable, considering Europe's reluctance to stand up to Milosevic's assaults on Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as those republics broke away from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. His violent crackdown last spring on the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo--a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia--also met a tepid initial response from European leaders, who were more reluctant than Washington to give up on diplomacy.

"A year ago, if someone had said we'd get to the point where we'd bomb Yugoslavia, and all the members [of NATO] would agree, I would have had a hard time believing it," said a European diplomat in Brussels, where the alliance has its headquarters.

Europe's position hardened in recent weeks, diplomats and officials say, as Milosevic pursued an increasingly bloody crackdown on Kosovo civilians and refused last month to sign a Western-brokered peace accord with the province's guerrilla-led opposition.

In rejecting a vaguer peace plan offered this week by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it would fail to stop Serbian "genocide"--a damning accusation aimed at rallying history-conscious Germans more firmly behind NATO.

"Europe cannot accept to have on its soil a man and a regime that for close to 10 years has carried out . . . operations of ethnic cleansing, murders and massacres," French President Jacques Chirac told his compatriots in a televised speech Monday night.

Public opinion has shifted with events. Approval for the bombing raids runs as high as 58% in Britain and France, and 54% in the Netherlands and Germany, according to published surveys. The same polls indicate that most British, French and Dutch favor sending NATO ground troops to Kosovo if the bombs fail to stop the atrocities.

"Many of the doubters who were not sure it was a wise choice to attack so soon, who would have liked to see diplomatic efforts prolonged, realize that to stop now would be to expose the Kosovar civilian population to even greater risks," said Italian Sen. Tana de Zulueta.

Random interviews in several cities point to a more interventionist position on Kosovo among younger Europeans such as Christian Reim, a 24-year-old marketing assistant in Berlin.

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