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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Housing Area Hit, NATO Admits

Military: Alliance says laser-guided bomb was meant for army training center. Death toll from errant weapons in five weeks of airstrikes is 150.

April 29, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS and NORMAN KEMPSTER and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BRUSSELS — NATO conceded Wednesday that its warplanes had fired at least one laser-guided bomb into a housing area in southeastern Yugoslavia, at least the fifth mistaken attack on civilians and the latest self-inflicted wound to the alliance's image as its airstrikes on Yugoslavia entered their sixth week.

The wayward bomb that smashed into houses Tuesday in the town of Surdulica was intended to hit an army training center, during intensified attacks on Yugoslav forces conducted by NATO, which maintains it has those forces on the run.

But the recurring accidents that have killed about 150 civilians over the last few weeks appear to have put the alliance on the defensive.

"NATO has never and will never target civilians," alliance spokesman Jamie Shea insisted after reporting that a 2,000-pound bomb "failed to guide accurately to its designated target and impacted some 200 to 300 meters beyond the barracks in a small residential area."

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials had no accurate information about casualties, Shea said. Yugoslav authorities said at least 16 people were killed and contended more than one bomb struck the housing area.

Deputy Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic, the Yugoslav government's most prominent spokesman, traveled to Surdulica on Wednesday to denounce what he called "the latest NATO aggressive bestiality against civilians."

"There are no military facilities in the vicinity," he asserted, though residents said at least two Yugoslav army barracks had in previous days come under attack in or near the town, about 18 miles from Kosovo province.

While NATO came under criticism for the bombing, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic sought political gain in embattled Kosovo, where his troops have driven hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes, by negotiating a deal with Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Rugova, whom Kosovo Albanians elected president in an unofficial 1997 vote that Milosevic refused to recognize, agreed Wednesday to work with Serbian leaders on setting up an interim government for Kosovo, which is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

NATO's bombing should stop and Kosovars of all ethnic groups should start negotiating again to reach agreement on "broad self-administration" for Kosovo, Rugova said in a joint statement with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, a close ally of Milosevic.

"Our main goal is to somehow get out of this situation," Rugova said as he stood beside Milutinovic in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. "In Belgrade, and in the international community, there is high-level work on finishing some things."

As the leader of a peaceful campaign for Kosovo's independence, Rugova was once so influential that he was photographed with President Clinton in the White House. Western officials believe that Rugova--whom Kosovo Liberation Army rebels seeking independence for their province have threatened to kill--is under house arrest, raising questions about how freely he was acting.

In other developments Wednesday:

* Milosevic's regime fired Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, a former Yugoslav opposition leader who in recent days had called for a compromise with NATO. The state-run Tanjug news agency said he was dismissed because of "public statements which were contrary to the government stands."

* Clinton defended the NATO military operations as being more successful than critics have portrayed them and promised that the bombings would be even more effective as the weather over Yugoslavia improves during the spring. He said signs that Yugoslavia has sent additional troops to Kosovo are "an indication of the trouble they're having" as a result of the allied bombing. "If they had no problems, they wouldn't need the troops."

* Clinton conferred at the White House with a bipartisan group of Senate and House members to appeal for support for his Kosovo policy. Lawmakers leaving the meeting said Clinton called for quick approval of his request for $6 billion to finance the war and related humanitarian efforts. Congressional leaders have made it clear that they will vote even more money, perhaps as much as $13 billion, in part to provide military pay raises.

* The World Health Organization warned of deteriorating health conditions at refugee camps in nations bordering Kosovo, and said conditions could worsen with the advent of warm weather. Drugs to treat diabetes, asthma and hypertension are urgently needed.

* Officials at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank told a news conference that the crisis could cut growth rates in neighboring countries--Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina--by an average of 5 percentage points next year. They said the cost of caring for refugees could rise far above current estimates of $300 million.

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