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U.S. Frees 2 Prisoners; Serbs Protest Fighting

Balkans: Hundreds of angry parents rally in two towns to demand the return of their sons from Kosovo.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — As the United States returned two prisoners of war to the Yugoslav army, hundreds of angry parents rallied in two Serbian towns Tuesday to demand an end of fighting and the return of their sons from combat duty in Kosovo.

The antiwar protests, held for a second straight day in Krusevac and Aleksandrovac, were the first signs of collective resistance by Yugoslav citizens to the conflict since NATO began its air campaign eight weeks ago. Police arrested five people in Krusevac after rock-throwing demonstrators smashed windows in the town hall, civil defense headquarters and a state television office, witnesses said.

NATO, meanwhile, continued its air war late Monday and Tuesday. Alliance warplanes hit a military airport on the edge of Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital; a fuel depot in the capital's southern suburb; and an overpass near Nis, 120 miles to the south, cutting Yugoslavia's main north-south highway.

NATO officials said cloudy weather continued to hamper its operations against Yugoslavia, but the alliance flew 566 sorties during the 24-hour period ending Tuesday morning--including 190 airstrikes.

Diplomatic activity quickened on the eve of a meeting in Bonn, where seven Western powers and Russia--collectively called the Group of 8--will try today to shape their organization's vague 2-week-old peace plan into a U.N. Security Council resolution to put before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite "some reservations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic said Milosevic was "open" to the peace plan and "ready to cut a deal" if NATO stops bombing.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, meeting Tuesday in Italy with Italian Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema, said NATO would have to discuss a suspension of bombing once the Security Council passes a resolution outlining plans for ending the conflict.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched its air war March 24 in an effort to halt Milosevic's crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

The Group of 8 plan calls for political autonomy for Kosovo, a withdrawal from the province of Yugoslav forces that have expelled hundreds of thousands of Albanians, and deployment of an international peacekeeping force to help the refugees return safely.

The United States and other Western powers want a well-armed military force with NATO at its core. But Russia has insisted that any plan be acceptable to Yugoslavia, which opposes heavily armed troops from NATO countries that are now taking part in the air assault.

Seeking a compromise, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met in Helsinki with Russian peace envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who represents the European Union. Chernomyrdin was scheduled to go to Belgrade today.

Tuesday's hand-over of army privates Boban Milenkovic and Sesko Tairovic was widely interpreted here as a peace gesture. But the Yugoslav government did not characterize it as such or even report it on state-controlled television; officials merely thanked the International Committee of the Red Cross for help in gaining the soldiers' release.

Milosevic acknowledged last week that his forces have suffered significant losses during the NATO bombing. Residents of Krusevac said it was the return of six local conscripts and reservists in coffins on a single day last week that set off protests.

According to witnesses reached by phone and a television report in Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic in the Yugoslav federation, about 1,000 people gathered outside the town hall in Krusevac on Tuesday for a demonstration that was somewhat smaller but more destructive than one held Monday.

Hundreds of parents of soldiers rallied both days in Aleksandrovac, a smaller settlement. The towns are in southern Serbia, which has contributed a disproportionate share of the troops fighting in Kosovo province.

Demonstrators in Krusevac began throwing rocks after Mayor Miloje Mihajlovic and the town's army garrison commander, both protected by police, said they had no power to bring soldiers home from Kosovo, one witness said. The demonstrators--some shouting, others weeping--accused the government and its TV network of lying about the conflict.

The local army command issued an unusual statement Tuesday evening acknowledging the protest. It promised that a partial withdrawal of troops from Kosovo--which was announced last week by the army but derided by NATO as too small--would continue, adding that the pullout is being slowed by NATO's bombardment.

In other developments:

* NATO announced that an additional 54 U.S. Air Force F-15 and F-16 warplanes will be deployed in Turkey by the end of the month as the alliance seeks to strike Yugoslavia from all sides. Eighteen A-10 "Warthog" ground-attack aircraft will be sent to Italy.

* Javier Solana, the secretary-general of NATO, said he would not rule out a cease-fire by the alliance, but would consider one only if it received a clear signal from Yugoslavia that it was withdrawing all its forces from Kosovo.

* NATO said there is evidence that the Yugoslav government is digging up mass graves near the central Kosovo towns of Glogovac and Lipljan and trying to hide the evidence of war crimes. A Yugoslav spokesman denied there were mass graves at either site.


Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and David Holley in Podgorica, Yugoslavia, contributed to this report.

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