BERLIN — European leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington on Wednesday in deeming NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia fitting punishment for aggression, but nervous neighbors in the Balkans and beyond feared that the attacks might provoke a wider conflict.
"The fire in Kosovo could engulf the whole Balkans," Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned, echoing worries rife in the historically troubled region.
The government of Albania, which suffered the brunt of a refugee exodus from Kosovo last year, ordered its biggest military buildup since World War II to guard against possible retaliation by Yugoslav forces. Ninety percent of Kosovo residents are ethnic Albanian.
European stock markets fell even ahead of the bombardment on fears of deteriorating security across the Continent, and the last Western airlines serving Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, suspended flights until further notice.
In Berlin, where European Union leaders were gathered for a summit, the 15-nation alliance blamed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo that triggered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization action but stopped short of explicitly endorsing the resort to force.
"Aggression must not be rewarded. An aggressor must know that he will have to pay a high price. That is the lesson to be learned from the 20th century," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, reading a joint statement on behalf of the 15 leaders, 11 of them from NATO member countries.
Austria, one of the four neutral countries in the EU, exposed the unspoken rifts within the alliance, however, when it announced that it was closing its airspace to NATO warplanes because the military strikes lacked formal approval by the U.N. Security Council.
The Vatican deemed the NATO strikes "a defeat for humanity," and Pope John Paul II was praying for a restoration of peace in the Balkans, spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
Many Germans were distressed by their country's first involvement in a military strike on the Continent since Hitler's war machine reached deep into southern Europe. Bonn has made 14 Tornado jets based in Italy available for the NATO raids, and it was reported that German aircraft did participate in Wednesday's strikes.
"I've got problems with Germans taking part in this action because of the history of German activity in the Balkans," said Jochen Bruechmann, a 28-year-old civil servant who learned of the airstrikes while relaxing at a Berlin nightclub. "This is a military aggression."
Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism, the reformed Communists of the eastern states, deemed Germany's part in the assault "unconstitutional," but other political forces--including the pacifist Greens--stood behind the action.
"We are not waging war. We have been called upon to impose a peaceful solution in Kosovo, even if by military means," Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told German television networks late Wednesday, adding that "force was the only measure left."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair deemed the resort to military action regrettable but believed "the consequences of inaction are far, far worse," said his spokesman, Alistair Campbell.
France has previously voiced doubts about the efficacy of airstrikes in forcing peace in the Balkans, but President Jacques Chirac said Paris stood forthrightly behind the alliance action.
"Because it's a matter of peace on our continent, because it's a matter of human rights on our continent, I know French women and French men will understand that we had to act," Chirac said.
The most palpable fears of a backlash from the attacks were felt in countries neighboring Yugoslavia.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic with its own ethnic Albanian minority sympathetic to the plight of those in Kosovo, made clear that the 10,000 NATO troops massed in the tiny country to enforce a hoped-for peace agreement should not take advantage of their position to conduct punitive strikes against Belgrade.
"Our country won't allow its territory to be used in an attack on any neighboring country, including Yugoslavia, and I think NATO will accept this," Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said.
Greek officials at the summit here were notably restrained in their comments about the confrontation between NATO, of which Greece is a member, and the Serbs of Yugoslavia, who share the same Christian Orthodox faith. "We need calm," Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis said.
Hungary, which was inducted into NATO only days ago, opened its airspace to alliance forces for attacks across the Yugoslav border but did not feel in particular danger of retaliation, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.
Although not NATO members, Romania and Bulgaria also expressed support for the actions.
Most European countries ordered diplomats to evacuate Yugoslavia earlier this month and urged civilians in the country to leave for their own safety. The last convoys of Western officials, aid workers and international observers crossed out of the country only hours before the bombardment.
Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.