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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Clinton Calls Kosovo Crisis 'Crucial Test'

Balkans: President restates NATO's goals. Alliance suggests bombing may go on through winter.

May 14, 1999|JAMES GERSTENZANG and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Wary that the "ethnic cleansing" campaign waged against civilians by Yugoslav forces no longer seems shocking to the American public, President Clinton delivered an impassioned defense Thursday of NATO's air war, as a military spokesman in Brussels suggested that the conflict could continue into next year.

Clinton's explanation, the most comprehensive he has offered in recent weeks, reflects a perceived need to shore up support at a point when the public may be losing sight of the reasons the U.S.-led NATO coalition has been bombing Yugoslavia for seven weeks, a presidential aide said.

"Kosovo is a crucial test," Clinton said in an address to military veterans. "Can we strengthen a global community grounded in cooperation and tolerance, rooted in common humanity? Or will repression and brutality, rooted in ethnic, racial and religious hatreds, dominate the agenda for the new century and the new millennium?"

As Clinton delved deeply into the diplomatic, military, economic and humanitarian concerns underlying Operation Allied Force, the bombing campaign reached its greatest volume yet, with still no clear sign of retreat by the military forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

In Brussels, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said the alliance believes it has destroyed more than a quarter of the tanks, artillery and other heavy military equipment Milosevic has deployed in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.

"His forces are being pounded every night, he is admitting to heavy losses, every day he sees another percentage of his army being stripped away, and at the end of the day that is the basis of his power," Shea said.

Refugees' Welfare in Wintertime a Concern

Despite the confident talk, there were indications that NATO is preparing for a long slog.

Italian Navy Cmdr. Fabrizio Maltinti told reporters in Brussels that the alliance and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are worried about how Kosovo Albanian refugees will weather the next winter in Albanian camps located more than 3,000 feet above sea level.

"If these sites remain tented, they would be unsuitable during the winter," Maltinti said. The implication was that the refugees may not be able to return home to Kosovo until some time next year.

In other developments:

* Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin issued a stern warning to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that Russia's patience is running out and that his country may drop its efforts to mediate a peace agreement if the alliance remains intransigent. French President Jacques Chirac and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said they had made progress in talks with Russian officials in Moscow. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Talbott was told: "Talks must not be held for the sake of talks."

* Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin agreed Thursday to talk, as tensions with China over NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade appeared to be easing. Jiang's readiness to talk was conveyed by Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing, who visited the White House. Meanwhile, Beijing promised that U.S. tourists would be safe in China despite protests unleashed by the embassy bombing. And senior U.S. administration officials said Clinton has decided to nominate retired U.S. Navy Adm. Joseph Prueher to replace James R. Sasser as ambassador to China.

* For the first time in a week, a few refugees crossed into Macedonia from Kosovo. It was unclear whether they signaled a renewed flow, which had been shut off since reaching 20,000 refugees a day 10 days ago. One farm family of eight from central Kosovo, including an 82-year-old grandmother and a pregnant woman in her 20s, said they had wandered for five weeks from one deserted town to another after Yugoslav paramilitary troops stormed their village.

* The U.N. refugee agency reported that more than 900,000 refugees, or about half of Kosovo's prewar population, have fled the province since the start of the crisis more than 14 months ago. Of these, 748,400 have obtained refuge in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, while tens of thousands have been evacuated to other countries. Before the air war, an estimated 124,000 Kosovo Albanians had fled their homeland.

* The refugee agency said it has been unable to persuade many Kosovo refugees in northern Albania to move to newly established camps farther south, although their refuge, near the town of Kukes, is within shelling distance of Yugoslav artillery.

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