SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — In a rousing visit to a U.S. military base engaged in the air war over Yugoslavia, President Clinton on Wednesday told hundreds of exuberant, flag-waving Air Force personnel and their families here that NATO aircraft were hitting targets "hard, where it hurts" in a conflict fought to ensure a better world.
"Our mission in Kosovo has nothing to do with trying to acquire territory or dominate others," Clinton said. "It is about something far more important--creating the kind of world where an innocent people are not singled out for repression, for expulsion, for destruction, just because of their religious and ethnic heritage."
The speech, delivered in an aircraft hangar against the backdrop of three combat planes and a giant American flag, marked the highlight of Clinton's first visit to U.S. forces abroad since NATO aircraft began bombing Yugoslavia six weeks ago.
The encounter visibly boosted the morale of both those in uniform and their beleaguered commander in chief. Dressed in brown slacks and a brown leather bomber jacket, Clinton seemed to draw energy from the reception.
Clinton's visit with the forces remained upbeat despite the death of two U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilots only hours earlier when their aircraft crashed on a training mission in Albania. The two men, the first NATO fatalities of the conflict, were identified as Chief Warrant Officer 3 David A. Gibbs, 38, of Massillon, Ohio, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin L. Reichert, 28, of Chetek, Wis.
Earlier in the day, Clinton received a military briefing about the impact of the air campaign from senior commanders at NATO headquarters in Brussels and conferred with alliance Secretary-General Javier Solana in an hourlong one-on-one meeting. During that session, the president reportedly vowed to keep the military campaign going until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic capitulates.
According to alliance spokesman Jamie Shea, Clinton and Solana agreed that "we will keep the military campaign going, and going in a more intensive way, until President Milosevic accepts the demands of the international community: to stop the killing, remove his forces from Kosovo, allow in an international force, allow the unconditional return of all refugees, and to work towards a permanent political solution based on the Rambouillet peace plan."
It was the failure of peace talks in Rambouillet, France, that caused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to begin the airstrikes March 24.
Clinton told listeners here: "Without the fulfillment of all five conditions, this thing can't work."
Despite the brave and aggressive rhetoric, Clinton's day unfolded amid an intensified--and increasingly urgent--search for a diplomatic solution to end the conflict and depressing evidence that the humanitarian tragedy in the southern Balkans is growing steadily worse. It is a tragedy that NATO airstrikes were supposed to stop.
According to figures released Wednesday by the United Nations, the estimated number of people who have fled Kosovo so far has reached nearly 695,000, more than one-third of the province's prewar population. U.N. officials reported that about 7,000 new refugees crossed into Albania during the 24 hours ending Tuesday night, while 8,400 others arrived by train at the Macedonian frontier during the same time period. The officials said some of these refugees told reporters that they had fled an area in the Podujevo region in northern Kosovo in part because of fear of starvation.
"Fragile and unprepared countries are bearing the brunt of one of the largest refugee flows that Europe has seen in the 20th century," said Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Macedonia, meanwhile, closed its main border crossing with Yugoslavia on Wednesday and turned back people fleeing violence in Kosovo, the U.N. said. Struggling to cope with more than 200,000 refugees, Macedonia warned earlier that it might close its borders if the international community did not offer the country more assistance.
Some Kosovo Albanians--a large but uncertain number--have fled Yugoslav security forces and remain inside Kosovo as displaced persons.
The U.N. report came as Western governments began to face the prospect that peace in Kosovo--a southern province of the dominant Yugoslav republic of Serbia--and the subsequent conditions for a return of the refugees may not come before the first snow begins to settle into the region in late September.
"We have to start thinking about winter," Ogata said. "The tents are rather flimsy."
The turmoil inside Kosovo and the continued flow of ethnic Albanians fleeing the province came as NATO's senior military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday that the bombings had severely limited the ability of Yugoslav forces to carry out their campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo because they are either hiding or rebuilding their bomb-damaged infrastructure.