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Washington Steps Up Pressure on Milosevic

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Washington intensified the psychological pressure Thursday on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but with Kosovo peace negotiators facing NATO’s high-noon airstrike deadline Saturday, there were ominous signs that a cornered Milosevic may not back down in his standoff with the West.

As the Pentagon dispatched additional aircraft into the region to prepare for possible airstrikes, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spent much of her day trying to push the peace talks forward, including issuing a personal warning to the Yugoslav strongman.

“I think that [Milosevic] should understand that if airstrikes occur . . . he will be hit hard and he will be deprived of things that he values,” Albright told reporters in Washington after talking with the Yugoslav president by telephone earlier in the day. “I think he understands that this is a key moment in terms of the future of the former Republic of Yugoslavia.”

The State Department later announced that Albright will fly today to France, site of the peace talks, in an eleventh-hour bid to win Serbian acceptance of the terms of the deal to end the fighting in the separatist province.

There were growing signs Thursday that the Western powers were preparing for airstrikes against Serbian targets if negotiations fail.

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As the Pentagon prepared to dispatch 51 more aircraft to the region, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek said plans were already underway to evacuate several hundred international monitors deployed in Kosovo in recent months to verify the terms of an increasingly shaky cease-fire agreement worked out last fall between Serbian authorities and the leaders of Kosovo’s mainly ethnic Albanian population.

Ethnic Albanian and Serbian negotiators have until noon Saturday to sign a deal at a chateau near Paris to avert U.S.-led airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The two sides have been negotiating at Rambouillet for nearly two weeks on the Western-backed peace plan.

Like actors reading from a well-known script, Milosevic and NATO have stared each other down over Kosovo before, only to step back just in time to avoid a fight.

But this time the climax is likely to be bloody, said Serbian analyst Ognjen Pribicevic, who maintained that after years of using one crisis after another to strengthen his power, Milosevic is now fighting for his own political survival.

“Any solution, including foreign troops, will be very bad for him,” said Pribicevic, a moderate who advises leaders of Yugoslavia’s weak opposition to Milosevic’s almost dictatorial rule. The peace deal that Western powers insist the Serbs must accept at Rambouillet could bring almost 30,000 NATO-led troops into Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia’s two republics.

“So this is the reason he is so tough on this issue. He is afraid. He does not care about Kosovo. He does not care about nationalist Serbs. For all these years, he has only cared about his personal interests,” Pribicevic said.

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana warned Thursday that the alliance is prepared to act quickly if the clock runs out on the airstrikes deadline.

While the guerrillas oppose part of the draft peace accord that says they must disarm, a rebel movement based among poor farmers in Kosovo’s devastated villages doesn’t offer NATO any strategic military targets.

NATO is reportedly targeting military communications sites and barracks in Serbia, so the heaviest pressure is weighing on Milosevic as he calculates the risk of caving in to NATO pressure one more time.

The U.S. and its five European partners in the Contact Group that coordinates Balkan peace efforts hope that the threat of NATO bombing will force the warring parties to accept an interim deal that gives Kosovo greater self-rule. Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy are the other members.

Albright said Thursday after a telephone conversation with her Russian counterpart, Igor S. Ivanov, that she believed that Russia was delivering an equally tough message personally to the Yugoslav leader.

“They are as strong as we are in making clear to Milosevic that there is a deadline and that this agreement . . . deals with the problems of the Kosovo issue,” she said.

Albright added that she was hopeful that Russia would participate in a NATO-led peacekeeping force to police any agreement reached in Rambouillet, calling it “a genuine possibility.”

But Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin showed no signs of agreeing to that Thursday, warning the United States not to order any airstrikes against Serbia. He vowed that Russia would stand by its Slavic brethren and try to block any military action.

“I have told [President] Clinton my opinion, by letter and over the telephone, that this will not work,” Yeltsin said after a Kremlin meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. “That’s all there is to it. That’s our answer. We will not let you touch Kosovo.”

The White House reacted swiftly and with bemusement to Yeltsin’s remarks, saying he and Clinton had not communicated recently.

“The Russian position is long held,” White House spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters. “What is confusing us is there has not been a telephone call or written communication between the two presidents in recent days.”

At a news conference, Ivanov, the foreign minister, declined to say what action Russia might take in the event of U.S. or NATO action in Kosovo.

“We all are fully determined to achieve a political settlement and avert a complication of the situation,” Ivanov said.

NATO bombing helped force Milosevic to sign the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former Yugoslav republic, where 30,000 NATO troops now keep the peace among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

In Bosnia, the NATO force backs up foreign administrators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who routinely dictate to local leaders as if Bosnia were a protectorate.

The draft peace plan for Kosovo gives Milosevic good reason to expect the same would happen if he lets in NATO troops. As a man whom many have called a war criminal, Milosevic has a lot to fear if he lets foreign troops get too close.

“The problem is he is not in a position to be peacefully removed from power,” Pribicevic said. “He knows that if he loses power, he loses his head.”

Milosevic may also be holding out for a high price in exchange for giving in to NATO, such as the lifting of economic sanctions squeezing Yugoslavia. Some here still expect him to follow the old script and give in.

Milosevic will try to avoid NATO bombing “at any cost” because it would destroy any power he has left to keep the neighboring republic of Montenegro in Yugoslavia, said opposition politician Vesna Pesic.

“Bombing would mean, in reality, the [final] breakup of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” Pesic, who heads the small Civic Alliance of Serbia party, said Thursday.

Bombing Serbian military targets isn’t without risks for NATO, which must weigh the danger of straining its unity. Milosevic may gamble that attacks launched without approval from the U.N. Security Council will open cracks in NATO’s resolve if Russia, China and others apply pressure to end them quickly.

Watson reported from Belgrade and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Moscow contributed to this report.


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