WASHINGTON — Reconstruction of the Balkans will move ahead with or without Serbia, President Clinton said Friday, but for Serbia to take advantage of a massive aid program, its people "will have to come to grips" with the atrocities their troops committed in Kosovo.
Leaning dramatically over the presidential podium during a White House news conference, Clinton used his most forceful presentation to date to declare that the Serbian people cannot expect any assistance in rebuilding their war-ravaged land while Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.
"They're going to have to decide . . . whether they think it's OK that all those tens of thousands of people were killed and all those hundreds of thousands of people were run out of their homes and all those little girls were raped and all those little boys were murdered," Clinton said.
"If they think it's OK, they can make that decision. But I wouldn't give them one red cent for reconstruction if they think it's OK, because I don't think it's OK, and I don't think that's the world we're trying to build for our children," he continued. "They're going to have to come to grips with what Mr. Milosevic ordered in Kosovo. . . . They're going to have to get out of denial."
Serbia is Yugoslavia's principal republic; the federation's other republic, Montenegro, is considered pro-Western. Kosovo is a province of Serbia.
Clinton scheduled the session with reporters, in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, in an effort to turn attention toward his domestic agenda and the unmet objectives of the remaining year-and-a-half of his second term.
But during the give-and-take, which lasted 74 minutes, he was repeatedly drawn back to the unfinished business of Kosovo and Milosevic's taunting presence in the Balkans.
The president sees Milosevic's decision to withdraw his troops from Kosovo, after NATO's 11-week bombing campaign, as providing an opportunity for the alliance to tackle the daunting ethnic hatreds of the troubled region. Clinton's goal is an extensive program, financed by the wealthier nations, to prod the Balkans into greater economic and political alliances with the rest of Europe.
In an oddly personal note, Clinton said that when he dined in 1995 with Milosevic--while sealing a peace deal in Paris for the Balkan nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina--he had "a delightful and interesting lunch" and found himself thinking of Milosevic: "Well, you know, maybe he had some distance between the extreme activities of the Serbs in Bosnia."
"And then he went right out and did it all over again," Clinton said.
If Milosevic remains in power, Clinton said, the reconstruction of the region will proceed without him "and the relative importance of Serbia will be diminished."
With reports emerging from Kosovo each day of retaliation by ethnic Albanians against the Serbs, who are a minority in the province, the president said NATO-led peacekeeping troops "are doing what we can to stop it."
But, he added, "I am not particularly surprised, after what they [the ethnic Albanians] have been through."
Nor, he said, was he surprised by the military outcome. He said he had figured that the air war, which began March 24, would end within a few days or that Milosevic would decide to accept the destruction, in which case "it would take quite a long while for the damage to actually reach the point where it was unsustainable."
"It took only a little longer than I thought it would, once we got into the second model," the president said.
The surprising element, he added, was that no allied pilots were lost during the raids. Two Americans were killed when their Apache AH-64 helicopter crashed during training in Albania.
And the biggest surprise, he said, was the May 8 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, which killed three people. Clinton repeated U.S. assertions that the bombing was caused by "the mapping accidents." U.S. officials have said Defense Department maps showed a Yugoslav weapons agency sitting on the site occupied by the embassy.
"I had no earthly idea that our system would permit that kind of mistake," Clinton said.
During the news conference, the president also urged both sides in Northern Ireland to break their deadlock and meet a deadline of next Wednesday for forming a power-sharing Cabinet set forth in their accord.