WASHINGTON — Amid increasingly optimistic assessments of heavy bomb damage to the Yugoslav military, the Pentagon on Saturday dispatched 82 more warplanes to the Balkans, clearing the way for round-the-clock attacks on the Serbian troops accused of a relentless campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said the additional aircraft, nearly a 20% increase in the U.S. share of the allied armada, will allow NATO commanders to intensify their operations and broaden their targeting options in what virtually all U.S. officials now concede could be a drawn-out conflict. The British also deployed their first aircraft carrier to the region.
Bacon said destruction of Yugoslavia's once-feared air-defense system has reached the point where allied warplanes have obtained "tactical maneuverability, the ability to fly when we need to, where we need to, with acceptable risk."
At the same time, allied officials in Washington, London and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's headquarters in Brussels all claimed that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army and paramilitary police have suffered such severe damage that many units can do little more than hunker down and try to hide from the bombs.
Inclement Balkan weather hampered NATO air operations that ended midday Saturday, forcing the alliance to cancel flights by three of its four air combat groups. The NATO aircraft that did fly, plus a number of Tomahawk missiles launched from U.S. and British ships, hit targets that included a microwave radio facility near Kosovo's capital, Pristina, two fuel storage sites and a possible surface-to-air missile location.
Officials said the cloudy skies will provide only a "temporary respite" for Serbian forces.
In other developments Saturday:
* Spyros Kyprianou, speaker of Cyprus' parliament, returned home, giving up on an attempt to negotiate the release of three U.S. soldiers captured March 31 near the border with Macedonia.
* A series of explosions shook a district near the military airport of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, bringing the war back to Serbia's smaller partner in the two-republic Yugoslav federation. Although NATO has hit military targets in Montenegro from time to time, the alliance has tried to avoid damage to the infrastructure of the republic that, unlike Serbia, has a democratically elected government.
* In Moscow, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church renewed calls for NATO to halt the bombing during Easter, a holiday celebrated a week later on the Orthodox calendar than it is in the West.
* Several thousand Kosovo refugees streamed into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro after Yugoslavia reopened Kosovo's borders. NATO officials estimated that more than half of Kosovo's prewar ethnic Albanian population has been displaced, either within the embattled province or in neighboring countries.
* Germany called on Macedonian officials to ensure that those who have streamed into Macedonia are well treated, after indicating that international conventions on the treatment of refugees may have been violated. Thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were sent away from a squalid Macedonian border camp, sometimes without their consent.
* A senior Pentagon official said that refugees have reported mass graves near three towns in Kosovo. The official said that U.S. aerial reconnaissance shows images that may or may not be graves. He said there is a difference of opinion among analysts about the images.
* The Pentagon denied news agency reports quoting a witness in Belgrade as saying that an allied warplane had been shot down. U.S. officials said all aircraft returned safely to base.
NATO's claims of military triumphs in its campaign to end Yugoslav aggressions in Kosovo, which claimed 2,000 lives in the 14 months preceding NATO's intervention, came from all quarters Saturday.
"This air operation is being effective, and in the last two weeks we have inflicted a hell of a lot of damage . . . on the Yugoslav armed forces," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels.
British Armed Forces Secretary Doug Henderson said: "The air campaign has been effective in weakening and disrupting the military machine and has damaged its ability to sustain a campaign of terror and repression."
And at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, a vice director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Kosovo Liberation Army, virtually destroyed two weeks ago, has made a comeback. The rebel army fighting for Kosovo's independence is mounting effective resistance to the Yugoslav army at locations across the province, he said.
The Yugoslav forces "are very effective against unarmed women and children, but against the [KLA] they are not as effective," Wald said.