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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Doubts Over Safety Keep Copters Out of Combat

Yugoslavia: NATO commander fears U.S. will not give him go-ahead on Apaches, designed for use with ground troops. Rugged Kosovo terrain presents a tough challenge to sophisticated aircraft.

May 17, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BRUSSELS — U.S. officials declined Sunday to say when the Army's Apache attack helicopters will be sent into combat in Kosovo, as NATO sources disclosed that their military commander has not sought permission to use the vaunted tank-busters because he fears a refusal from Washington.

Although the Apaches could be deadly against dug-in Serbian forces, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the commander of Operation Allied Force, has refrained from submitting a formal request for battlefield deployment, according to NATO officials who requested anonymity.

Already nervous about the risk of American casualties, the Clinton administration has grown considerably more skittish since one of the 24 Apaches that have been sent to Albania crashed during a night training exercise May 5, a Western diplomat said. That crash killed both pilots. Another Apache went down April 26, but its two-man crew survived.

"They're like the old Alfa Romeo sports cars," one NATO official said of the $14-million gunships. "High performance, but also high maintenance--and high risk."

Debate over the 22 remaining Apaches swirled Sunday as the United States and its allies continued to find themselves on the defensive over the uncertain outlook of the airstrikes, as well as over a series of bombing mishaps in which civilians have been killed.

Fifty-four days into the allied air campaign, NATO again pledged not to relent despite mounting reports that ethnic Albanians are being used as human shields in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, which is Yugoslavia's main republic.

"We cannot allow ethnic cleansing to continue in Europe as we approach the 21st century," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said in an interview on BBC television.

Thursday night's bombing raid on the Kosovo village of Korisa, where NATO said the Serbs had installed a military camp and command post, has been blamed by state-controlled Yugoslav media for the deaths of 87 civilians and injuries to 78 others.

"It increasingly appears likely . . . that civilians were being used as human shields by [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic," Britain's undersecretary of defense, John Spellar, maintained.

In other developments:

* Two Yugoslav army soldiers held as prisoners of war by the U.S. military in Germany will be released, perhaps as soon as today, a senior Pentagon official told Reuters news agency Sunday.

* During the 24-hour period ending Sunday morning, NATO aircraft flew 539 sorties, fewer than in preceding days because of worsening weather. They struck six tanks, artillery pieces and other armored vehicles, three dug-in positions, troop concentrations, and military storage and command-and-control positions, alliance officials said.

* Two NATO missiles hit a power station belonging to a mining and smelting complex at Bor in eastern Serbia, injuring six workers, Yugoslavia's official news agency, Tanjug, reported.

* Solana, in Brussels, said he expects more evidence of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo to emerge once the conflict is over. "You don't see males in their 30s to 60s. It will be clarified upon entry into Kosovo, and probably we'll see dramatic facts we don't even believe," he told the BBC.

* Col. Milivoje Novkovic, a Yugoslav army spokesman, accused NATO of deliberately preventing army and police units from pulling out of Kosovo by intensifying the bombing after Yugoslavia announced its intention to begin withdrawing its forces from the province. NATO and U.S. officials continued to insist that there is no evidence of a meaningful withdrawal.

* The Yugoslav army put checkpoints on the border between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina in an attempt to stop recruits and reservists from leaving the country, a source close to the Montenegrin police told the Agence France-Presse news agency. The source said only 20% of recruits and reservists from Montenegro have accepted military call-up orders.

In Brussels, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea assured a news briefing that the Apache helicopters, equipped with Hellfire missiles, high-explosive rockets and 30-millimeter nose-mounted machine guns, will see action in Kosovo.

"I don't believe the United States would have gone to the trouble, time and expense to deploy 24--22 now--24 Apaches in Albania with upwards of 5,000 supporting troops and a multiple-launch rocket system as well, which took hundreds of flights to deploy, and then done all of this intensive night and day training, if there was no intention to use the Apaches, and use them effectively," Shea said.

The 24 Apaches began arriving at their staging areas in Albania on April 21, more than three weeks ago. Last week, a U.S. military commander in Albania said the 5,350-strong Apache battle force--named Task Force Hawk--had undergone "substantial" training and was ready for action.

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