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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Score 2 for Milosevic in the TV Air War: Seized GIs and a Smiling Foe

President has a good media day in Yugoslavia. Video of three captured U.S. soldiers gets lots of play, and leader is shown chatting with top ethnic Albanian Ibrahim Rugova.

April 02, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — On the propaganda front, at least, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic scored two big victories Thursday, trotting out three captured U.S. soldiers and meeting with the top Kosovo Albanian politician.

Video of the American soldiers, at least one apparently bruised and bloodied, led state television news bulletins every hour until late afternoon, when Milosevic matched it with another TV coup.

The Yugoslav leader, who normally is pictured sitting stiff and scowling in an armchair, was shown smiling and chatting with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova in Belgrade, as if the two were old friends.

Amid the relentless pressure of NATO bombings and international outrage over his "scorched earth" campaign in Kosovo, the chance to show off enemy prisoners and meet with a political foe made Milosevic's day.

Rugova, a Paris-educated pacifist, was twice elected president of Kosovo by its ethnic Albanian majority in underground elections Milosevic refused to recognize. Rugova also wants independence for Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia--an idea Milosevic rejects.

The two signed a brief statement saying "they are both committed to the political process and that the [Kosovo] problem can be solved successfully, and for a long-lasting period, only by political means," state-run television reported.

Over the past year, Rugova's political influence and stature declined as the Kosovo Liberation Army's guerrilla war did more to advance the independence cause than a decade of Rugova's peaceful resistance campaign.

Being so seemingly friendly with Milosevic on state-run television when much of Kosovo is being cleared of its ethnic Albanian majority isn't likely to help Rugova's image among his own people.

Reign of Terror in Province Intensifies

Even as Rugova was smiling with Milosevic at the president's palace in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, the Yugoslav leader intensified his brutal reign of terror in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and across the separatist province.

Serbian police, soldiers and paramilitary groups continued to work in teams going door to door, forcing Kosovo Albanians from their homes in Pristina and loading them onto trains bound for the Macedonian border.

After Wednesday's forced march of about 7,000 ethnic Albanians through Pristina to the railway station, people fled the almost-empty Vranjevac district in smaller groups of 20 and 30.

One man struggled to run and catch up with his family while pushing his elderly mother in a wheelbarrow. The crack of rifle shots from the streets behind left him no time to pause and catch his breath.

A frantic woman who had risked the walk through Serbian areas to reach Vranjevac to search for her sister couldn't go to her house because police, soldiers and civilians had the street blocked off for a second straight day.

"I'm sure she must be on the other side of the police because she would have come to my house," the woman said. "But I can't get her on the telephone. I don't know how to find her. I don't know what to do."

At Pristina's railway station, hundreds of ethnic Albanians spent the night camped out on the grass, terrified by the explosion of NATO bombs and the sound of a few cars carrying Serbian paramilitary fighters through darkened streets.

Pristina's Serbs, many of whom are leaving by choice as NATO's airstrikes get worse and the city empties out, found something to laugh at in the images of American soldiers held captive in Yugoslavia.

"The barbarian logic of American bombs would lead us to think of scalping those three," secretary Anica Jovanovic, 42, said through an interpreter. "But we'll show Clinton that we are much more civilized than he is."

Although Milosevic may have won a quick round of the propaganda war by parading American captives on state TV, he may come to regret violating a strict rule of the Geneva Convention governing war.

The international law prohibits the display and public humiliation of captured soldiers, and war crimes investigators drawing up the list of Milosevic's infractions may well add this latest one.

"In my opinion, it demonstrated once again the contemptible approach of Belgrade for basic decency and humanity," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters in London on Thursday.

"There is no possible justification for using soldiers who have been captured for propaganda purposes," Cook said. "Indeed, it is explicitly barred by international agreement, which, once again, Mr. Milosevic is plainly breaking."

But just as he has done each day since the start of NATO's airstrikes, Milosevic won more points with his own people, many of whom had wanted nothing more than to see him removed from power just a few weeks ago.

In the eyes of many Serbs, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is having a much more difficult time than Milosevic in the propaganda campaign--an essential part of any modern war.

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