New deployment raises question of ground forces
April 5, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton on Monday tried to head off what his advisers believe will be an effort by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to divide the NATO alliance.
U.S. intelligence sources are picking up indications Milosevic may announce as early as this week a unilateral cease-fire in Kosovo -- and perhaps -- a partial troop withdrawal from the Serbian province.
But Clinton fired a pre-emptive warning Monday, saying those two steps alone won't be enough to stop the NATO air campaign.
"More empty promises and token half-measures won't do the job," Clinton said at an afternoon news conference. "A commitment to cease killing, in a Kosovo denied its freedom and devoid of its people, is not acceptable."
The president said Milosevic must withdraw his forces from Kosovo, allow the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees to return to their homes, accept an international security force in Kosovo, and move toward the Rambouillet peace accords worked out in France last month.
Clinton pledged to press on with "undiminished, unceasing and unrelenting" airstrikes against Yugoslavia if Milosevic continues to rebuff Western demands -- and to "persist until we prevail."
"We know we are up against a dictator that has shown time and again that he would rather rule over rubble than not rule at all," Clinton told reporters at the White House.
Shortly after the president spoke Monday, a massive explosion rocked at least one oil refinery in Novi Sad -- a Yugoslav city that has come under heavy attack by NATO in recent days.
Serbian television showed a bright orange fireball lighting up the nighttime sky and flames rising high into the air around 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. EDT).
But despite the increased hits NATO warplanes and missiles are scoring against Yugoslavia, Clinton is coming under attack at home, with some reports saying his military commanders had misgivings from the beginning about an air-only campaign.
The president dismissed the criticism Monday.
"I would far rather be standing here answering these questions," Clinton said, "than I would to be standing here having you ask me why we are permitting wholesale slaughter and ethnic cleansing and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and not lifting a finger."
Clinton also said that while diplomacy was everyone's first choice, peace talks at Rambouillet, France, failed and that made the NATO air campaign the "best available option."
When the president was asked if the U.S. military was "with him," he deferred to Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
Cohen said the armed services, and especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recognized the problems of a military mission in Yugoslavia, including difficult weather, tough geography and the very robust Yugoslav air defense system.
"They came to the conclusion, unanimously, that the only option available, other than sitting on the sidelines, was to pursue the air campaign, given its limitations," Cohen said.
Clinton's spokesman earlier told reporters that soldiers would enter the province only as peacekeepers.
"We will not use ground troops in anything but a permissive environment," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said.
Lockhart's comments followed those of Cohen, who said during an interview on CNN that the Clinton administration and NATO remained committed to a strategy of only airstrikes in Yugoslavia.
"We have started to hit many of the rail lines, the bridges, the petroleum storage and ammunition depots," Cohen said.
"Now we're starting to take the air campaign directly to the tanks, the heavy artillery, the types of gatherings of armed forces and police forces in the field," he said.
Not only is the United States unwilling to commit combat troops to ground action in the Balkans, but NATO is unlikely to consider such a move, he said.
"This is a NATO operation. It's not a unilateral action by the United States. The NATO countries are committed to waging an air campaign," Cohen said.
The statements from the Clinton administration officials came amid growing congressional calls for the use of ground troops in the Balkans.
Key U.S. lawmakers went on weekend talk shows to say the Kosovo conflict won't come to an end without ground troops.
The decision to deploy 24 Apache helicopters and some 2,000 support personnel to NATO's Operation Allied Force also raised concerns about ground forces.
The low-flying Apaches will go after Serbian troops and tanks on the ground. They will be protected by ground-based anti-personnel missile batteries and Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks that will remain in Albania.
These are all Army weapons -- used by soldiers in Army green -- yet the Clinton administration stresses their deployment is not the beginning of a ground force for Kosovo.
But some military experts aren't convinced that Army helicopters are part of an air campaign.
"You asked about the 24 Apache helicopters, the 2,000 servicemen, Bradley fighting vehicles going in with them, what does it mean?" retired U.S. Army Col. William Taylor said. "It means ground power."
"Is it incremental? Yes," said Taylor, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In addition to the Apache helicopter support forces, NATO is planning to deploy another 6,000 to 8,000 troops in Albania -- on top of the 12,000 troops already in Macedonia. If a ground force should be needed, the beginnings of one will be in place.
Correspondents Wolf Blitzer and David Ensor contributed to this report.
First Kosovo refugees flown out of Macedonia
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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