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Crisis in Yugoslavia

NATO Jets Mistakenly Bomb Rebel Barracks

Balkans: Bad intelligence cited for the strike at military site. Pentagon details the need for more ground troops.

May 23, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BRUSSELS — A record number of NATO warplanes pounded Yugoslavia's major cities and other targets Saturday as the alliance admitted another deadly targeting blunder in the two-month air war, this time against ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

Taking advantage of good flying weather over Kosovo, NATO's fighters and bombers flew 684 sorties, the most since it launched its attack on Yugoslavia's military and infrastructure on March 24.

But in another accidental attack, NATO admitted its bombs struck a military barracks that had been captured six weeks ago by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA, which is fighting the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, said seven of its fighters were killed and 25 injured, while independent observers put the figure at one dead and seven wounded.

In Washington, the Pentagon insisted that the swift buildup of NATO ground troops in the Balkans being urged by President Clinton is intended for peacekeeping operations and not an invasion.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon stressed that a rapid deployment of as many as 50,000 NATO troops--nearly twice the force originally envisioned--is needed in case Milosevic capitulates to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's demands that he withdraw his forces from Kosovo and allow nearly 1 million ethnic Albanian refugees to return home under NATO protection.

"NATO . . . plans to do this so the refugees can return home as quickly as possible after a peace agreement is signed," Bacon said. "NATO's policy remains the same. The air campaign will continue until Yugoslavia accepts NATO's terms."

The North Atlantic Council, the alliance's policymaking body, will meet this week in Brussels to debate whether to authorize a larger peacekeeping force for Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia. NATO has about 16,000 troops in the region, and the proposal calls for doubling that number as a first stage.

"Once they reach a decision, that decision will have to be translated into a whole series of orders that will lead to the requisitioning of troops, and then countries will come forward and make their offerings and the force will be assembled," Bacon said.

Diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis appeared to be in temporary abeyance as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott returned to Washington from Moscow after talks with Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the special envoy who has sought to mediate between Milosevic and NATO. Talbott is expected to return to Moscow this week for further talks with the former Russian prime minister, who was appointed to his present post by President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The bombing of the barracks housing KLA fighters was the latest in a series of errant NATO attacks.

NATO cited an intelligence failure for the bomb strike Friday on the Kosare military barracks, a former Serbian base inside Kosovo that was captured by the KLA.

"It was until very recently in the hands of the Yugoslav army,' Shea said. If NATO had known that the base had changed hands, he added, "it would have been taken off the target list."

The separatist KLA strongly supports NATO's role in the war, and Western journalists who have been escorted to the barracks in recent weeks have watched KLA guerrillas there place satellite phone calls to NATO military officials to report Serbian military movements. TV crews have filmed ethnic Albanian volunteers speaking English, French, German and other languages at the base.

The KLA said seven fighters were killed "in their sleep" and 25 were injured inside the three-story concrete building in a mountainous area about six miles from the Albanian border. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has observers on the Albanian side of the border, said one person was killed and seven wounded.

NATO also struck a complex Friday that housed a prison where KLA commanders were jailed with other prisoners of the Serbs, according to a Times reporter who visited the site. In all, 19 prisoners and guards, plus a deputy warden, were killed. NATO officials said the complex was a Serbian military base, complete with airfield, helicopter pad and military barracks.

"And that's what we were striking, that military installation," Shea said Saturday. "I don't think many Kosovar Albanians will shed a tear if that prison is not being used, because many of them have suffered very badly from their detention there."

NATO planes also hammered parts of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, and four other cities: Nis, Veliki Crljeni, Bajina and Drmno.

Army barracks, petroleum storage facilities, television and radio transmitters, and a presidential command center at Dobanovci also were targeted, NATO officials said.

At least five surface-to-air missiles were fired at NATO aircraft, but none of the planes were hit, officials said. NATO pilots fired at 12 tanks, 11 armored vehicles, seven other military vehicles and nine artillery positions inside Kosovo, according to the allies.

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