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Crisis in Yugoslavia

As Air Raids Drag On, NATO Fears Stalemate

Balkans: Bombings have weakened Milosevic's forces. But Yugoslav troops can still wage low-grade warfare.


WASHINGTON — Despite NATO's boasts that the air war is grinding Yugoslav forces in Kosovo to helplessness, some top U.S. military officials worry that the campaign may be entering a standoff in which Yugoslav troops, while battered, remain strong enough to attack ethnic Albanians and ward off an allied invasion.

Officials of the Western alliance have declared that the air bombardment has knocked out more than 25% of Yugoslavia's heavy military equipment in the province, bringing NATO nearly halfway to making Yugoslav units "combat ineffective."

Yet some U.S. defense officials privately say they may be facing a potentially lengthy period in which Yugoslav forces, dispersed and weakened, can nonetheless block the efforts of a casualty-averse NATO to escort home refugees driven from Kosovo.

Though NATO's bomb-damage statistics appear to foretell a collapse of Yugoslav field forces within weeks, "it's hard to see anything like that," one senior officer said.

The public statements of top U.S. military leaders show greater optimism about what an intensifying air campaign will produce. Yet lately their words suggest that the battle against the remnants of the Yugoslav forces could be long and frustrating.

U.S. Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that it was possible that "a force like the one [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic is using for ethnic cleansing and terrorizing Kosovo could hold out for quite some time. . . . The effective tool that Milosevic's forces have been using have been the rifles and pistols that they've shot people through the head with."

Observed another official: "At some point, probably not too far away, we could declare that almost all of [Milosevic's heavy military equipment] is gone. But that doesn't mean they'll stop fighting."

This official said that, for all the bashing of Yugoslav armaments, NATO's first focus is on the more abstract goal of "changing the will of the forces and the will of Milosevic. There may not be a direct correlation between numbers and will."

Most of the officials who discussed the air war's impact requested anonymity.

The bomb damage statistics suggest that some progress has been made in recent days, as NATO's nearly 1,000 aircraft have stepped up the pace and intensity of their strikes.

The current estimate that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has destroyed more than 25% of Yugoslav forces' heavy equipment marks a change from two weeks ago, when officials said they believed 10% to 20% of tanks were destroyed. (Not all NATO countries, it should be noted, agree with these numbers: Belgian officials asserted this week that only 6% of Yugoslav tanks have been demolished.)

All MIG-29s Are Destroyed, U.S. Says

U.S. officials say all of Yugoslavia's MIG-29s, its most sophisticated military aircraft, are gone. At the end of April, they estimated that half had been destroyed.

Officials say that, while Yugoslav air defenses are still formidable, they have been reduced enough that NATO pilots have been cleared to fly more daylight missions. Officials say tank-busting A-10 "Warthogs" are now flying low enough to use their 30-millimeter cannons, though it is not clear how often they go on such risky missions.

In other areas, progress appears to have been slower. Officials say rail lines and what they termed "major" roads into Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia, are all reportedly severed. Yet they acknowledge that the damage is confined to only half of all roadways.

NATO estimates that Yugoslav forces in the province still number about 40,000, the same as at the air war's onset, though the officials caution that troop figures are especially slippery. The Yugoslav government has claimed that 100,000 troops are in the province.

In its intensification of the air war, NATO has clearly been trying to break Yugoslav morale as well as guns and armor, officials said.

The alliance is well aware, they said, of how frightening it is for Yugoslav forces to hear warplanes circling day and night, searching for "targets of opportunity," such as tanks that are courageous enough to venture out from cover.

NATO Relying More on Gravity Bombs

NATO has been increasingly relying on B-52 bombers that are dropping dozens of old-fashioned gravity bombs--a thunderous spectacle that has frightened enemies since the Vietnam War. Also in greater use are the shrapnel-hurling cluster munitions that can kill personnel and wreck equipment across a wide area.

Pentagon officials have continued to report poor troop morale, desertions and draft-dodging in Yugoslavia. They say military leaders have begun moving their families and savings out of Yugoslavia, a sign of eroding confidence in Milosevic.

And they pointed Thursday to Milosevic's first acknowledgment Wednesday of heavy military casualties--evidence, they say, that the country is beginning to feel real pressure from the bombardment.

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