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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Airdrop Readied to Get Food, Aid Into Kosovo

Relief: Private effort to start next week. Although cleared by NATO, operation will receive no support from alliance.

May 29, 1999|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Spurred by reports that some displaced people in Kosovo have been reduced to eating tree bark and leaves, a humanitarian group on Friday said it hopes to begin airdrops next week of relief supplies into the beleaguered province.

"Some 600,000 uprooted Kosovars have been without regular food supplies for nearly two months," said Reynold Levy, president of the International Rescue Committee--the largest of the U.S. refugee organizations that operate independently of religious affiliation--which is sponsoring the risky operation.

"It is urgent we get supplies to them as soon as possible, and the airdrops represent one useful option for assisting thousands of people in need," Levy said.

IRC executives said Yugoslav officials accepted "without negative comment" letters outlining the plan the relief organization presented in New York and Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

The way for the missions also was paved in quiet discussions between Yugoslav authorities and members of a U.N. humanitarian assessment team that visited Kosovo this month.

The relief group will coordinate its operation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, so that the supply planes will not get in the way of alliance airstrikes over Yugoslavia. The cargo will be inspected by a Swiss firm to reassure Yugoslav authorities that no military supplies are being dropped for the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army in the southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

The Russian-made planes will be piloted by Moldovan crews who will make two runs daily from Pescara, Italy.

"There are risks. Airdrops are complex and delicate operations," Levy said at a New York news conference. "They are an imperfect humanitarian tool. But they are worth trying."

As many as 10 NATO aircraft have been hit by ground fire--two of them crashed--during more than nine weeks of airstrikes on Yugoslavia.

In Brussels, German air force Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz confirmed that IRC officials had conferred with NATO representatives.

"We gave them all the information; we told them that we need all the information to make sure that they are in areas where we know where they are," he said. "We cannot and will not guarantee them full protection. They know that. They are aware of it."

IRC officials said that the issue of rescuing any crew members from downed humanitarian planes is delicate and that the organization had received no promises of help from NATO. The alliance has considered and rejected as too dangerous the option of dropping air supplies to displaced Kosovo Albanians.

Jertz stressed that the Yugoslav government is responsible for the security of the flights and must inform its forces in Kosovo of the operation.

The general added that NATO's European commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, had established a "humanitarian airdrop guidance" policy, requiring that organizations seeking to parachute humanitarian supplies into Kosovo give NATO sufficient notice.

"Even if we have this information, we are not protecting them in flight," he warned.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the Clinton administration was "very supportive" of the IRC's effort.

The committee has received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help pay the cost of managing the flights, which is estimated at $1 million a month.

"There are risks, but we also think there are gains if the planes can be flown in and tens of thousands of [military] Meals Ready to Eat or humanitarian daily rations can be brought to the people of Kosovo," Rubin said.

Pentagon officials, however, stressed that the U.S. military was not linked to the humanitarian flights, and they expressed fears the planes would be in grave danger.

"I think it's not a good idea, frankly, as an airman," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, a senior Pentagon planner. "I think they are putting themselves--from an operational perspective--at great risk.

The issue of providing supplies and care for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians forced from their homes by Yugoslav forces but still living in Kosovo is highly sensitive for NATO.

Although the Western alliance has accelerated plans to build durable shelters for more than 800,000 Kosovo Albanians who have fled the province, it could face a humanitarian crisis within Kosovo if the air campaign continues for weeks or months, as officials have said it could.

Such a calamity could raise questions about the wisdom of the air war and erode public support for its continuation. The Clinton administration has been searching for an answer for weeks but has found no easy solution to the dilemma.

On Friday, NATO accused the Yugoslav army of halting 28 trucks at Serbia's border with its smaller sister republic, Montenegro, and confiscating food aid destined for Kosovo. NATO spokesman Jamie P. Shea also said none of the 12 international aid convoys inside Serbia had been allowed into Kosovo.

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