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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Diplomatic Trip Signals Hope for Americans' Release

Balkans: U.S. warns it will accept no conditions for freedom of 3 soldiers. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees are turned back at Albanian border.

April 08, 1999|JAMES GERSTENZANG and CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — NATO's military campaign proceeded with heightened furor Wednesday in the air over Yugoslavia, while on the ground, an international negotiator said he was making progress toward obtaining the freedom of three U.S. soldiers captured by Serbian forces last week. U.S. officials warned that Washington would accept no conditions for the captives' release.

Picking out some of the most minute Yugoslav military units waging war against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, NATO airstrikes targeted a column of seven to 12 vehicles in an overnight attack that continued into Wednesday, the military alliance announced in Brussels.

An air raid on an administrative complex in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, killed at least 10 civilians--five ethnic Turks, including three children, living in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, and five Serbs, including three working at a post office and telephone exchange. Twenty other people were injured.

Looming over the military campaign is the prospect of a grinding war through the rugged terrain of Kosovo.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Pleasanton), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said NATO officials and U.S. legislators meeting in Brussels discussed the possibility of deploying ground troops in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

U.S. officials have been adamant that they are making no plans to conduct the war in any way other than from the air. But Tauscher said: "This has not gone the way anyone had hoped. We need to be looking 17 steps ahead of where we are."

She said the group, which accompanied Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to Brussels, was not "talking about [deploying] troops tomorrow." But she said it was "not only prudent and appropriate but incumbent on us" to begin looking at what might become necessary in the future, including ground troops.

One day after Yugoslavia announced that it was calling a cease-fire for the Orthodox Easter, to be celebrated Sunday, the Clinton administration denounced the proposal as neither a serious gesture nor a signal that President Slobodan Milosevic is ready to move toward a settlement on anything other than his conditions.

"It is not enough now for Mr. Milosevic to say that his forces will cease fire in a Kosovo denied its freedom and devoid of its people," President Clinton said in a hastily arranged speech to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank. "He must withdraw his forces, let the refugees return, permit the deployment of an international security force."

In other developments:

* The fate of tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees grew more uncertain after a column of ethnic Albanians seeking to cross the border into Albania was turned back by Yugoslav authorities.

* In Moscow, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin appealed to the leaders of the seven major industrial democracies not to reject the Yugoslav cease-fire plan out of hand. Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said his nation had dispatched 74 trucks carrying 300 tons of food, medicine, tents and blankets to Yugoslavia and would send a mobile hospital unit to treat civilian victims of the NATO bombardment. But he said Russia had no plans to send military supplies.

* Greece asked its NATO partners to undertake negotiations with Milosevic and said the cease-fire should be exploited.

* The U.S. named nine Yugoslav commanders operating in Kosovo who it said were committing war crimes and warned that they could face international justice. In the Netherlands, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia said it was asking NATO to hand over evidence that could be used to try war-crime suspects.

A flurry of behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity raised hopes that progress was being made in obtaining the release of the three soldiers--Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez of East Los Angeles and Christopher J. Stone of Smith's Creek, Mich., and Spc. Steven Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas.

The acting president of Cyprus, Spyros Kyprianou, flew to Belgrade on Wednesday at the urging of the Yugoslav ambassador to try to win the soldiers' freedom. He later flew to Athens, where he said he was "waiting for the green light from Belgrade" before returning to Yugoslavia today, Associated Press reported.

"The indications are that this mission will succeed. I am confident about it," he told reporters. Later, he said in an interview with MSNBC: "I think in principle there is an agreement for this."

He said he had asked that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization halt its bombardment for 24 hours. He was turned down, but U.S. officials said Wednesday that they were taking note of his presence there and were aware of concerns for his safety.

Cyprus and Yugoslavia, both members of the Nonaligned Movement comprising more than 100 largely Third World nations, have had good relations for years.

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