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War Aims Under Attack, but NATO Counsels Patience

Strategy: Alliance trumpets its 'best day's work,' though as criticism mounts, many see no quick end in sight.


BRUSSELS — On Day 50 of its air war against Yugoslavia, NATO on Wednesday claimed its most successful overnight series of bombing and missile attacks, but unmistakable gloom has set in about its powerlessness to achieve victory any time soon.

"It's like the mid-semester blues my children have," said a Western diplomat at NATO headquarters here when asked to describe the prevailing mood. "You know you're working as hard as you can, but you can't see the end of it."

"We could still be here at Christmas," the diplomat added.

NATO officials said their strategy remains to keep bombing President Slobodan Milosevic's army and police--which the alliance says have been carrying out a campaign of killings, rapes, robberies and evictions against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo--until the Yugoslav leader accepts NATO's demands.

"I think that we have a mission, that the mission is going to continue until we obtain the objectives," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told Brussels reporters via video hookup during a visit Wednesday to the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

"Ethnic cleansing cannot prevail in Europe, and we are making all in our capability . . . not only to stop it, but to reverse it," Solana said.

But even though NATO officials say their resolve is infinite, the time allotted to the alliance is looking much less so. The brutalities continue against the Kosovo Albanians, the supposed beneficiaries of the U.S.-led air campaign. About 750,000 of the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians who were living in Kosovo have fled to other countries, U.N relief officials said, and hundreds of thousands of others are believed to be displaced within the province.

Russian Support Now Seen as Uncertain

In some West European countries, domestic politics increasingly are roiled by disagreements about how to handle the conflict.

Efforts to find a diplomatic exit were broadsided early Saturday when NATO bombed the Belgrade embassy of China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization apologized, saying it had made a mistake. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visiting Beijing on Wednesday, said China is still insisting that the alliance halt airstrikes against Yugoslavia as a precondition for a political settlement.

The United States and other Western nations had great hopes that Russia, a former superpower now dependent on infusions of their aid money, would assist in the search for a solution. But a wild card was thrown on the table Wednesday when Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin fired his prime minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, and also threatened to walk out of negotiations on Kosovo.

"We're not participants in this war. It's not our country that started it," Yeltsin said during a meeting of his powerful Security Council. "Some people obviously aren't understanding our repeated proposals."

Meanwhile, though governments of NATO members are adopting the same firm public stance as Solana, doubts seem to be growing in some quarters about the effectiveness and logic of alliance actions--and whether Western leaders, first and foremost President Clinton, have blundered badly in expecting Milosevic to see things their way.

"If there is one person who has emerged stronger from the whole campaign in his own fiefdom, it is Mr. Milosevic," the Independent newspaper of London said in a scathing front-page analysis of the results of the first 50 days of NATO's Operation Allied Force.

In remarks to reporters, Belgian Maj. Gen. Pierre Seger, chief of operations for his nation's general staff, estimated this week that the NATO air raids have managed to destroy no more than 6% of the estimated 300 Yugoslav tanks stationed in Kosovo--markedly less than the 20% estimated by NATO.

NATO Details Latest Airstrikes

The alliance's reply to much of the criticism is to ask for more time. "Usually incoming governments are given 100 days before they are judged, but if you wish to judge us after 50 days, I would simply say that the game is not over yet," alliance spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters Wednesday.

During the preceding 24 hours, he announced, NATO warplanes had flown 327 strike missions--the highest number during a one-day period to date. That brought the total number of sorties since March 24, including such non-strike flights as missions by refueling planes, to just less than 20,000.

Five MIG-21s reportedly were destroyed on the ground, and Yugoslav troops, tanks and self-propelled artillery in Kosovo, as well as five airfields and eight bridges throughout Yugoslavia, were among the many targets struck, NATO officials said.

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