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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

President Continues Pressing Case

Military: At air base, Clinton says U.S. can't walk away from 'ethnic, religious and racial atrocities.'

April 13, 1999|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — President Clinton said Monday that ethnic warfare such as the conflict in Yugoslavia must be halted "before it destabilizes all of Europe."

The president spoke to about 2,000 military personnel, including several who have taken part in the NATO mission over the Balkans and returned.

Presenting the risks of warfare over Kosovo in broad terms as the new century arrives, Clinton said that as much as the death and destruction demanded humanitarian assistance, the conflict also brought to the surface a second pressing issue: whether the West will allow hatreds based on race, ethnicity or religion to define the coming decades.

"We don't want the 21st century to be defined--and we don't want American soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines to die on distant battlefields in large numbers--because we walked away from these ethnic, religious and racial atrocities," Clinton said. "That's what's going on."

The visit to the Air Force base was part of a continuing campaign on the part of the White House to aggressively present its case for pursuing the air war against Yugoslavia but not deploying ground troops in combat.

Clinton reviewed developments in the war Monday evening with the five top congressional leaders, and planned to meet with a group of about 50 legislators this morning.

The president said he would exempt from federal income tax the pay earned by American troops serving in the Kosovo area of operations, defined as Yugoslavia, Albania, the Adriatic Sea and the northern Ionian Sea, and the airspace above them. U.S. military personnel serving in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia already receive this benefit.

"This will mean that for military personnel serving in the combat zone, most or all pay for each month served will be tax-free; not withheld from paychecks, not subject to IRS claims later," he told audience members, most of them Air Force personnel.

The troops will also be given what is known as "imminent danger pay" of $150 a month, and an extension of Thursday's filing deadline. Such tax considerations are standard in combat situations, and were granted to military personnel serving in the Persian Gulf War and follow-up operations, White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said.

Six of the 62 B-52 bombers stationed at Barksdale, in the northwest corner of Louisiana, have been dispatched to the Royal Air Force base at Fairford, England, and from there to airspace near or over Yugoslavia, where they have launched cruise missiles and dropped bombs.

The president also spoke privately with about two dozen members of air crews and their ground support teams who have participated in the campaign.

One 27-year-old captain, who piloted one of the first bombers to launch cruise missiles against Yugoslav targets on the first night of the war, said after his meeting with Clinton: "We did everything we could, and we're doing the right thing, to bring peace, even a forced peace, to bring people back together." Under Air Force ground rules, he could not be identified.

The visit was Clinton's second in less than two weeks with military personnel assigned to forces involved in the conflict. He visited the naval station at Norfolk, Va., on April 1.

The airmen offered warm, but not overwhelming, applause--most enthusiastically when the president said that if the U.S. is part of a multinational force in Kosovo, it will protect the Serbian minority with the same vigilance it would give to the ethnic Albanian majority. Then he declared:

"This is America trying to get the world to live on human terms, so we can have peace and freedom in Europe, and our people will not be called to fight a wider war for someone else's madness."

Clinton was accompanied by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Cohen told reporters that the 3-week-old air campaign had decreased the mobility of the Yugoslav military and eroded its morale, the latter demonstrated by reports of desertions from combat units assigned to Kosovo and by "a growing effort by young Yugoslavs to evade the reserve call-ups."

The Defense secretary said intelligence reports supported his assertion; he said he had no specific figures on desertions.

The Clinton administration has taken pains to explain why, after responding with little more than expressions of concern to humanitarian crises fueled by ethnic divisions on other continents, it has put the reputation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and perhaps thousands of American lives, on the line in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

There are, Clinton said, the "truly chilling" stories of the victims:

"Serb security forces herding Albanian villagers together, gunning them down with automatic weapons and setting them on fire. Telling villagers, 'Leave, or we will kill you.' Separating family members. Loading up buses and trains, carrying some to the borders and some to be slaughtered. Confiscating identity papers and property records, seeking literally to erase the presence of these people in their own land forever."

But, speaking on a sunny morning near the flight line, with three B-52s and an A-10 "Warthog" ground-attack aircraft parked within camera range, Clinton also said, "We've learned the hard way through two world wars and through what we saw in Bosnia that, with these kinds of conflicts, if you don't halt them, they spread, to be stopped later at greater cost and greater risk."

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