NATO fighter jets roared Monday over the southern Balkans in a forceful warning to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But the military maneuvers prompted no sign of letup in his armed assault on ethnic Albanian separatists.
As state-owned Yugoslav television labeled the exercises "an international scandal," Milosevic's armed forces continued to attack independence-minded villages in Kosovo province, driving more refugees across the mountainous border into Albania.
Eighty-five bomber and reconnaissance aircraft from 13 of NATO's 16 member countries, including the U.S., flew four hours of exercises over Albania and Macedonia. Both countries border Kosovo and share the Western alliance's fear that the fighting, which has claimed more than 250 lives, could spread to the two Balkan nations.
For all its might, Operation Determined Falcon was invisible and inaudible to the knot of ethnic Albanian villagers who gathered here on a border hilltop in eager anticipation--and to everyone else in the rump Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and Montenegro. The jets kept at least 10 miles from Yugoslav airspace.
Even so, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said the deployments from air bases in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Britain and the Adriatic Sea had shown Milosevic how quickly the alliance can mobilize a lethal force against him.
"NATO is preparing to go further if required to halt the violence and protect civilian populations," Solana warned in a speech in Rome, noting that alliance planners are weighing a range of options that include direct intervention in Yugoslavia with air and ground forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan endorsed the exercises by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying the threat of force coupled with diplomacy is the best way to halt what he called " 'ethnic cleansing' [and] indiscriminate attacks on civilians" in Kosovo.
But Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev undermined the gathering international consensus by complaining that Moscow, which wanted to exhaust diplomatic efforts first, had not been consulted about the NATO deployment.
Sergeyev publicly rebuked Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a meeting in Moscow. With reporters and cameras present, the Russian said he had met with Shelton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday.
"We discussed Kosovo in detail, agreeing to solve the problem above all by political means," Sergeyev said. "And all of a sudden, on arrival in Moscow, I learn about the start of an exercise. That was a surprise for me."
Shelton insisted that Sergeyev knew about the exercises but perhaps not about their timing.
Kosovo erupted in February as Europe's bloodiest conflict. The province, about the size of Los Angeles County, is part of Serbia--the dominant republic of the Yugoslav federation--but 90% of its 2 million people are ethnic Albanians. Most of them favor independence and increasingly voice support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla group that formed last year.
A sweeping new offensive by Yugoslav army troops and militarized Serbian police through a string of Kosovo villages in late May prompted NATO to act. The alliance, which supports autonomy but not independence for Kosovo, is trying to enforce an ultimatum to Milosevic from the six-nation Contact Group monitoring the Balkans.
The Contact Group--the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia--is demanding a cease-fire and troop withdrawal from Kosovo; free access for international monitoring and humanitarian aid; repatriation of displaced people; and rapid, serious and conclusive peace talks with Kosovo's Albanian leadership.
Serbian television relegated the air deployment to the eighth item on its evening newscast, emphasizing criticism by China as well as Russia.
The newscast gave more prominence to Milosevic's departure Monday for Moscow, feeding speculation that his meeting today with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin might yield enough concessions to defuse the situation in Kosovo--at least for the moment. President Clinton urged Yeltsin by telephone Monday to use whatever influence he has with Milosevic to stop the bloodshed.
Fighting in recent weeks has flooded Albania, Europe's poorest country, with 12,000 refugees from besieged villages in Kosovo. Western officials in Bajram Curri, a border town in Albania, said 365 more villagers arrived there Monday after an all-night trek across tortuous mountain paths.
The refugee flow, up from about 150 a day over the past week, signaled a new offensive in western Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian leaders said four villages were under attack Monday by helicopter gunships, grenades and shelling.
In the Albanian capital, Tirana, where NATO jets startled people Monday by skimming close to rooftops, President Rexhep Mejdani said alliance airstrikes against Serbian targets might be needed to stop further attacks on Kosovo's villages.
That, more or less, was the sentiment in this poor farming village of about 1,000 ethnic Albanians near Kosovo's border with Macedonia--far from the conflict but ever fearful that the fighting could spread here any day.
At 8 a.m., when the NATO exercises were set to begin, tractors went silent and villagers trekked with their children to the highest hill, from which they had observed a comet two years ago, to search the skies.
"We can hardly wait to see the jets," said Zenun Berisha, 40. "Somehow, I think they will ease our fear."
But Osman, another member of the village's large Berisha clan, disagreed. "Those airplanes up there cannot protect us," he said. "They should come down to Earth and disarm the Serbs--or at least give us some weapons so we can defend ourselves."
The discussion went on for four hours. But instead of a roar from the skies, the loudest sound heard was the braying of Sherif Berisha's mule. With the jets too far away to be detected, the debate shifted to whether NATO had really held the exercises at all.
"Ever since the fighting started, all we've heard is lies," Sherif Berisha said. "But we'll keep waiting. Those jets had better come before it's too late."
Times staff writer Richard C. Paddock in Moscow contributed to this report.