NATO dismisses Serb pullout, knocks out electricity
May 13, 1999
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Rejecting a reported Yugoslav pullout from Kosovo as a "theatrical withdrawal," NATO renewed its airstrikes against Yugoslavia late Thursday and into early Friday, knocking out electricity in major cities.
NATO planes targeted Serbia's electrical power grid, cutting power in several districts of Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad. The cities of Leskovac, Pirot and Sabac also reported blackouts. Allied planes have been dropping special graphite bombs in recent days that cause short circuits without destroying power grids.
The bombing came hours after a contingent of Yugoslav troops -- about 150 men -- left Kosovo on Thursday. The Yugoslav army announced several days ago that it would withdrawal half its forces from the Serb province, but Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz, NATO's military spokesman, said the alliance did not believe Thursday's movement meant a large number of troops were pulling out.
"However, we strongly believe that effectiveness of our recent airstrikes against ground forces in Kosovo has caused some tactical redeployment in the forward areas, probably to seek better refuge or to regroup," he said.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said there was no sign of a legitimate withdrawal.
"Taking out a couple hundred soldiers here and a couple hundred soldiers there is not what we consider a withdrawal. We consider that to be theater," Bacon said.
NATO officials estimated there were about 40,000 Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, including some 300 armored vehicles, when the war began March 24.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said Thursday allied attacks at airfields in Batajnica and Obvra destroyed five Yugoslav aircraft on the ground. He said military communications sites at Kosovska, Novi Sad and Stara Pazova also were hit, and Serbian television reported its transmitter in Novi Sad was hit by NATO missiles.
Serbian television said NATO attacked sites in the towns of Leskovac and Pirot, in eastern Serbia. Serb TV also reported attacks on Pancevo, near Belgrade; Pozarevac, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's birthplace; and the town of Sabac.
Yugoslav state radio reported that Novi Sad's oil refinery was bombed once again, along with several sites in Kosovo, including Srbac; a border area between Decani and Djakovica; and Prizren, where bombs exploded near a railway station and a hotel.
NATO has avoided strikes on buildings in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade for nearly a week, since the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy there killed three people early Saturday. But NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that attack -- which NATO blamed on outdated maps -- did not prompt allied air staffs to change their target list.
If NATO is avoiding Belgrade, he said, it's because the alliance has shifted its priorities toward the Yugoslav army in Kosovo, he said.
"If you have already destroyed or severely damaged the Ministry of Defense or (special police) headquarters in Belgrade, you don't have to hit it again," Shea said.
French President Jacques Chirac met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Thursday in Moscow for talks, during which he supported Moscow's efforts to mediate between Belgrade and the West to help resolve the Kosovo crisis.
After meeting with Chirac, Yeltsin reiterated earlier warnings that Russia may halt its diplomatic efforts unless it starts seeing some results.
Yeltsin told Chirac that Russia "will have to revise its participation in the negotiating process if NATO continues bombing Yugoslavia despite Russia's active efforts, and if Russian proposals are ignored," the Interfax news agency reported.
Chirac played down such a risk. "We do not at all think that Russia is ready to withdraw from a process which demands its active presence," he said.
Russia and the United States are drafting two documents intended to resolve key disputes over how to end the Kosovo conflict, U.S. officials told CNN.
But serious disagreements remain between Moscow and Washington on two questions: the chain of command of a possible Kosovo peacekeeping force and whether all Yugoslav forces would be required to leave Kosovo in order for refugees to return home.
Russia is insisting on a strictly U.N. command, similar to the joint command shared by the United Nations and NATO in Bosnia. But U.S. officials argue that so-called "dual key" framework was a failure in Bosnia, because it prevented NATO from making quick decisions in response to problems among ethnic and religious groups on the ground.
Meanwhile, Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin assured U.S. officials Wednesday that if Moscow and Washington reach a peace proposal on Kosovo, China will not veto the plan in the U.N. Security Council.
Chernomyrdin relayed the message to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who was in Moscow.
U.S. officials said Chernomyrdin -- just back from Beijing -- told Talbott that Chinese leaders were enraged over the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. But, the U.S. sources said, Chernomyrdin also said the Chinese made clear they "would not get in the way" if NATO and the Russians were in agreement on a peace plan.
China has publicly threatened to hold up the proposal if it were submitted to the Security Council, and called for NATO to halt the bombing.
U.S. officials said they were encouraged by Chernomyrdin's report. They also said Chernomyrdin told Talbott he plans to head to Belgrade soon on another diplomatic mission.
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson left the Yugoslav capital on Thursday after a trip to gauge the impact of the war in Yugoslavia.
While recognizing suffering on both sides, Robinson leveled the harshest criticism against Milosevic and his policies in Kosovo, which she described as a campaign against ethnic Albanian civilians.
"It is a devastating pattern of ethnic cleansing. The suffering of the Kosovar Albanians is terrible and direct and cruel," she said. "And the suffering of the civilian population in this country is also very real and very cruel."
Yugoslav officials told Robinson more than 1,200 people have been killed and 5,000 hurt during the fighting. Milosevic did not meet with her despite repeated requests.
NATO dismisses reports of Yugoslav troop withdrawals
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