Clinton, in Europe, Tells Troops of NATO Goals


In a rousing visit to a U.S. military base engaged in the air war over Yugoslavia, President Clinton on Wednesday told hundreds of exuberant, flag-waving Air Force personnel and their families here that NATO aircraft were hitting targets “hard, where it hurts” in a conflict fought to ensure a better world.

“Our mission in Kosovo has nothing to do with trying to acquire territory or dominate others,” Clinton said. “It is about something far more important--creating the kind of world where an innocent people are not singled out for repression, for expulsion, for destruction, just because of their religious and ethnic heritage.”

The speech, delivered in an aircraft hangar against the backdrop of three combat planes and a giant American flag, marked the highlight of Clinton’s first visit to U.S. forces abroad since NATO aircraft began bombing Yugoslavia six weeks ago.


The encounter visibly boosted the morale of both those in uniform and their beleaguered commander in chief. Dressed in brown slacks and a brown leather bomber jacket, Clinton seemed to draw energy from the reception.

Clinton’s visit with the forces remained upbeat despite the death of two U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilots only hours earlier when their aircraft crashed on a training mission in Albania. The two men, the first NATO fatalities of the conflict, were identified as Chief Warrant Officer 3 David A. Gibbs, 38, of Massillon, Ohio, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin L. Reichert, 28, of Chetek, Wis.

Earlier in the day, Clinton received a military briefing about the impact of the air campaign from senior commanders at NATO headquarters in Brussels and conferred with alliance Secretary-General Javier Solana in an hourlong one-on-one meeting. During that session, the president reportedly vowed to keep the military campaign going until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic capitulates.

According to alliance spokesman Jamie Shea, Clinton and Solana agreed that “we will keep the military campaign going, and going in a more intensive way, until President Milosevic accepts the demands of the international community: to stop the killing, remove his forces from Kosovo, allow in an international force, allow the unconditional return of all refugees, and to work towards a permanent political solution based on the Rambouillet peace plan.”

It was the failure of peace talks in Rambouillet, France, that caused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to begin the airstrikes March 24.

Clinton told listeners here: “Without the fulfillment of all five conditions, this thing can’t work.”


Despite the brave and aggressive rhetoric, Clinton’s day unfolded amid an intensified--and increasingly urgent--search for a diplomatic solution to end the conflict and depressing evidence that the humanitarian tragedy in the southern Balkans is growing steadily worse. It is a tragedy that NATO airstrikes were supposed to stop.

According to figures released Wednesday by the United Nations, the estimated number of people who have fled Kosovo so far has reached nearly 695,000, more than one-third of the province’s prewar population. U.N. officials reported that about 7,000 new refugees crossed into Albania during the 24 hours ending Tuesday night, while 8,400 others arrived by train at the Macedonian frontier during the same time period. The officials said some of these refugees told reporters that they had fled an area in the Podujevo region in northern Kosovo in part because of fear of starvation.

“Fragile and unprepared countries are bearing the brunt of one of the largest refugee flows that Europe has seen in the 20th century,” said Sadako Ogata, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Macedonia, meanwhile, closed its main border crossing with Yugoslavia on Wednesday and turned back people fleeing violence in Kosovo, the U.N. said. Struggling to cope with more than 200,000 refugees, Macedonia warned earlier that it might close its borders if the international community did not offer the country more assistance.

Some Kosovo Albanians--a large but uncertain number--have fled Yugoslav security forces and remain inside Kosovo as displaced persons.

The U.N. report came as Western governments began to face the prospect that peace in Kosovo--a southern province of the dominant Yugoslav republic of Serbia--and the subsequent conditions for a return of the refugees may not come before the first snow begins to settle into the region in late September.


“We have to start thinking about winter,” Ogata said. “The tents are rather flimsy.”

The turmoil inside Kosovo and the continued flow of ethnic Albanians fleeing the province came as NATO’s senior military commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday that the bombings had severely limited the ability of Yugoslav forces to carry out their campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo because they are either hiding or rebuilding their bomb-damaged infrastructure.

While senior U.S. and NATO officials profess confidence in public that the air campaign eventually will wear down the Milosevic regime, a clear sense of urgency now driving diplomatic efforts to end the war is evidence of a discomfort in allied capitals that the bombing seems to have produced more misery than progress.

The latest effort at diplomacy comes today when foreign ministers from the so-called Group of 8 countries--the world’s seven largest industrial nations plus Russia--meet in Bonn amid growing optimism among alliance members that Moscow may agree with them on the basic outlines of a political settlement for Kosovo. Virtually from the beginning of the crisis, Russia has agreed with the United States and others in calling for an end to the violence and for the return of ethnic Albanian refugees, but it has balked at Western plans for a security force with NATO troops at its core to guarantee whatever peace comes to Kosovo after the bombing.

In recent days, however, Moscow has gradually accepted the need for some kind of postwar international peacekeeping force in the province, and German officials Wednesday expressed hope for additional movement at today’s meeting.

Winning Moscow’s support is important for two reasons. It would raise the prospect of U.N. Security Council action against Yugoslavia, a move that would further isolate Milosevic and add legitimacy to NATO’s campaign, but it would also win over one of the few countries viewed as a friend by Belgrade.

“To the extent that NATO and Russia can work together, we are able to enhance the prospects for a diplomatic settlement and shorten the duration of the military operation,” said Shea, the NATO spokesman.


Russian special envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin returned to Moscow on Wednesday from his diplomatic mission in the U.S. and said he was increasingly optimistic about the prospects for peace in Kosovo, although other Russian officials cautioned against expectations of a breakthrough in Bonn.

In developments elsewhere:

* Moderate Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who many feared was being held captive by the Yugoslav government, arrived in Rome on Wednesday on a special flight as a guest of the Italian government. It was the first time Rugova had left Yugoslavia since the NATO airstrikes began.

* At the United Nations, a report released Wednesday by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe says destruction of Yugoslav roads and bridges has crippled key import-export markets for already fragile economies in neighboring countries. The report says the European Union and NATO alliance members should foot the multibillion-dollar bill for restoring Yugoslavia’s infrastructure, although U.N. analysts admit this could leave the U.S. and others in the uncomfortable position of paying Milosevic, if he is still in power, to clean up his country after they’ve bombed it.

* A chartered Boeing 747 on Wednesday delivered 453 refugees from Kosovo to Ft. Dix in New Jersey, where they were greeted by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was the first planeload of the about 20,000 Kosovo Albanians that the United States has pledged to take in. More flights were scheduled for Friday, Monday and next Wednesday.

* Hungary, which joined NATO in March, will be the base for 24 U.S. F/A-18 fighter-bombers, which are expected to arrive in the next few days, Defense Minister Janos Szabo announced. Hungary, the only NATO member bordering directly on Yugoslavia, has refused to participate directly in the bombing campaign.

Meanwhile, military strategists at NATO are drawing up a plan to send a ground force into Kosovo, if and when U.S.-led air power does manage to drive Yugoslav forces out, but “we don’t have any numbers yet,” Shea said.


An “advance guard” of ground troops is already in place--the 16,000 NATO troops deployed or on the way to Macedonia, which borders Kosovo, the alliance spokesman said.

But a senior U.S. diplomat said that the size of what was christened KFOR--for Kosovo Force--would have to be “somewhat larger” than the 28,000 troops projected for policing a peace agreement in Kosovo proposed before the airstrikes began.

At the same time, Gen. Clark flatly denied a report published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal that NATO planners had already prepared a blueprint for 60,000 ground troops, about one-third of them American, to go into Kosovo by midsummer to take over from retreating Yugoslav forces.

Clinton’s whirlwind tour, which began with morning briefings in Brussels, went on from Spangdahlem to Ramstein Air Base, also in Germany, where he dined with troops and met in private with three U.S. soldiers released Sunday by Yugoslavia after being held more than a month as prisoners of war.

Chen reported from Spangdahlem Air Base, Marshall from Washington and Dahlburg from Brussels. Times staff writers Richard C. Paddock in Moscow, Janet Wilson at the United Nations and T. Christian Miller in Brazda, Macedonia, also contributed to this report.