Amid increasingly optimistic assessments of heavy bomb damage to the Yugoslav military, the Pentagon on Saturday dispatched 82 more warplanes to the Balkans, clearing the way for round-the-clock attacks on the Serbian troops accused of a relentless campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said the additional aircraft, nearly a 20% increase in the U.S. share of the allied armada, will allow NATO commanders to intensify their operations and broaden their targeting options in what virtually all U.S. officials now concede could be a drawn-out conflict. The British also deployed their first aircraft carrier to the region.
Bacon said destruction of Yugoslavia's once-feared air-defense system has reached the point where allied warplanes have obtained "tactical maneuverability, the ability to fly when we need to, where we need to, with acceptable risk."
At the same time, allied officials in Washington, London and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's headquarters in Brussels all claimed that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army and paramilitary police have suffered such severe damage that many units can do little more than hunker down and try to hide from the bombs.
Inclement Balkan weather hampered NATO air operations that ended midday Saturday, forcing the alliance to cancel flights by three of its four air combat groups. The NATO aircraft that did fly, plus a number of Tomahawk missiles launched from U.S. and British ships, hit targets that included a microwave radio facility near Kosovo's capital, Pristina, two fuel storage sites and a possible surface-to-air missile location.
Officials said the cloudy skies will provide only a "temporary respite" for Serbian forces.
In other developments Saturday:
* Spyros Kyprianou, speaker of Cyprus' parliament, returned home, giving up on an attempt to negotiate the release of three U.S. soldiers captured March 31 near the border with Macedonia.
* A series of explosions shook a district near the military airport of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, bringing the war back to Serbia's smaller partner in the two-republic Yugoslav federation. Although NATO has hit military targets in Montenegro from time to time, the alliance has tried to avoid damage to the infrastructure of the republic that, unlike Serbia, has a democratically elected government.
* In Moscow, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church renewed calls for NATO to halt the bombing during Easter, a holiday celebrated a week later on the Orthodox calendar than it is in the West.
* Several thousand Kosovo refugees streamed into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro after Yugoslavia reopened Kosovo's borders. NATO officials estimated that more than half of Kosovo's prewar ethnic Albanian population has been displaced, either within the embattled province or in neighboring countries.
* Germany called on Macedonian officials to ensure that those who have streamed into Macedonia are well treated, after indicating that international conventions on the treatment of refugees may have been violated. Thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were sent away from a squalid Macedonian border camp, sometimes without their consent.
* A senior Pentagon official said that refugees have reported mass graves near three towns in Kosovo. The official said that U.S. aerial reconnaissance shows images that may or may not be graves. He said there is a difference of opinion among analysts about the images.
* The Pentagon denied news agency reports quoting a witness in Belgrade as saying that an allied warplane had been shot down. U.S. officials said all aircraft returned safely to base.
NATO's claims of military triumphs in its campaign to end Yugoslav aggressions in Kosovo, which claimed 2,000 lives in the 14 months preceding NATO's intervention, came from all quarters Saturday.
"This air operation is being effective, and in the last two weeks we have inflicted a hell of a lot of damage . . . on the Yugoslav armed forces," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said in Brussels.
British Armed Forces Secretary Doug Henderson said: "The air campaign has been effective in weakening and disrupting the military machine and has damaged its ability to sustain a campaign of terror and repression."
And at the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, a vice director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Kosovo Liberation Army, virtually destroyed two weeks ago, has made a comeback. The rebel army fighting for Kosovo's independence is mounting effective resistance to the Yugoslav army at locations across the province, he said.
The Yugoslav forces "are very effective against unarmed women and children, but against the [KLA] they are not as effective," Wald said.
Allied officials said NATO strikes have destroyed about half of the Yugoslav military's store of fuel and have cut road and rail lines. All told, NATO claimed to have destroyed about 150 targets in 18 days of bombing, including eight of the 16 MIG-29 fighters Yugoslavia had in its air force when the conflict started.
While Bacon said NATO's strategy of trying to strangle the Yugoslav forces was showing measurable success, he added, "We haven't seen what you all want, which is pictures of tanks having run out of fuel."
U.S. and allied officials also warned that the conflict is unlikely to end any time soon. Earlier rosy scenarios have been replaced by plans for a lengthy campaign.
"While there may have been hopes that just a few days of bombing would have led Mr. Milosevic to back down, most people knew that the more likely scenario was that this would be a protracted struggle," a senior NATO diplomat said in Brussels.
"People sometimes tend to draw conclusions on the assumption that wars are fought the way Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger would--lock everything up in an hour and 45 minutes and everyone goes away happy. But in the real world, these things take time," the official said.
The 82 U.S. planes sent Saturday to the region will join more than 400 American attack and support planes and 200 other allied jets now in the force. The new planes will include 24 F-16 fighters armed with HARM anti-radar missiles, four tank-busting A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, six radar-jamming EA-6B Prowlers, 39 KC-135 and two KC-10 refueling tanker aircraft and seven C-130 transports.
Late Saturday, Britain announced that it has ordered the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible to the Adriatic. The ship, much smaller than U.S. aircraft carriers, is equipped with seven Sea Harrier fighter planes and 10 Sea King helicopters.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are gearing up for a debate on the administration's Kosovo policy once Congress returns to business this week after its two-week Easter-Passover recess. Although virtually all members of the Senate and House have expressed revulsion over Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" campaign, some question whether atrocities in the Balkans damage vital American interests.
In Saturday's Republican radio address, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), an Air Force veteran, expressed concern about the plight of refugees but pointedly said the United States cannot hope to rid the world of all evils.
"The president owes us an explanation of what exactly winning would mean and what the cost would be--in dollars yes, but mostly in lives lost and dreams destroyed," she said. "Thus far, our strategy in Kosovo has failed to achieve our political objectives. We have not gotten the Serbs to sign the peace treaty, and while we have not caused it, we have certainly accelerated a humanitarian disaster in the Balkans."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), on his way home from an inspection tour of Macedonia and its refugee camps, said the "humanitarian tragedy" created by Milosevic might spread and grow. Nevertheless, he said, he opposes the dispatch of U.S. ground troops to Kosovo and has serious doubts about the administration's strategy in the Balkans.
"While I agree with those who would argue that NATO cannot afford to lose, unfortunately 'not losing' does not constitute a viable strategy or policy," Spence said in a written statement. "As NATO prepares to escalate the air war, the absence of clearly defined objectives, including a definition of what constitutes 'success,' as well as uncertainty over the extent of the U.S. military commitment in the months and years ahead, is deeply troubling."
On the humanitarian front, a somber milestone passed: The number of refugees who have left Kosovo topped half a million, according to the latest figures compiled by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. About 400,000 more were displaced inside Kosovo, a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia.
NATO spokesmen said the conditions of the displaced, especially those still in Kosovo, are appalling.
"There are increasing reports about hundreds of thousands of people living out in the open under very dire conditions" in Kosovo, a senior NATO diplomat said.
Allied representatives said the International Committee of the Red Cross has been permitted limited access to Kosovo, but NATO said it is powerless to get relief supplies to those displaced inside the embattled province.
Kempster reported from Washington and Kraul from Brussels.
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NATO forces are using unpiloted aircraft known as Predator and Hunter drones to scope out military targets. The single-engine planes, effective day or night, transmit video images to battlefield commanders. But their lack of speed makes them vulnerable to ground fire. A Hunter went down Wednesday, but the cause was uncertain. A look at how the remote-controlled aircraft work:
HOW IT WORKS
1. Mission command: Controller sends aircraft to target area.
2. Target area: The aircraft circles over the target area and sends video to command center.
3. Attack report: Aircraft assists in target sighting, monitors success of strikes.
No risk to NATO personnel
Effective day or night
Provides immediate target and damage assessment
Extremely sensitive to bad weather
Slow transit time to target
Narrow field of viewing
Wingpan: 48.7 ft.
Length: 26.7 ft.
Payload: 450-900 lbs.
Speed: Up to about 175 mph
Swath width: About 875 yards
Ground control station
Trojan Spirit II terminals
Operational altitude: Up to 16,000 ft.
Satellite communication antennas
Image formulation processor
Forward electronics bay
Flight time: Up to 24 hours
Operational altitude: Up to 26,000 ft.
Cost for 4 drones, ground support trailer and options: $10 million to $25 million
Source: John Pike, defense specialist; compiled by MIKE FANEUFF and LESLIE CARLSON/Los Angeles Times