May 22, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- NATO is close to approving a plan to rush up to 50,000 peacekeeping troops to Kosovo's southern borders, but Pentagon officials strongly deny that the unspoken aim is to prepare for a possible invasion of the war-torn Yugoslav province.
"It's unsaid because that's not true. That's not the plan," said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon at a press briefing Saturday.
U.S. military officials say their aim is to have the capability to move peacekeepers in quickly if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agrees to NATO's peace terms.
On Thursday, however, NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark told top U.S. military leaders that there is no guarantee that air attacks alone will force Yugoslavia to make a peace deal and that an invasion should not be ruled out.
Even as planning for the possible use of ground troops continues, NATO officials said better weather is enabling them to step up the pace of the air assault on Yugoslavia.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that overnight air raids late Friday and early Saturday were the heaviest yet in the alliance's 60-day campaign, with 684 sorties flown.
NATO military spokesman Col. Konrad Freytag said that 245 out of 684 sorties were strikes, including 90 aimed at suppressing air defenses.
Several of the attacks targeted Yugoslavia's power production facilities, leaving about 60 percent of Serbia without electricity. A presidential retreat, which NATO says was a military command and control center, was also struck.
On the diplomatic front, the European Union's peace envoy, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, met in Harpslund, Sweden, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to brief him on Ahtisaari's recent talks with Russian and U.S. officials in Moscow.
The Finnish leader said NATO powers and Russia see eye-to-eye on major issues involved in a possible deal to end the Yugoslav conflict. However, he said that before he can go to Belgrade with a peace proposal, key details need to be clarified.
Among the details are the timetable for a NATO cease-fire and the alliance's role in any peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
Shea also confirmed Saturday that NATO had bombed a Yugoslav army post taken over by the Kosovo Liberation Army more than a month earlier.
International monitors said at least one KLA guerrilla was killed in the Friday attack and at least 15 others were wounded. The post was located in Kosare, near the northern Albanian border town Tropoja.
Shea said he could not confirm any casualties.
"We did strike that border command post," he said. "It was until very recently in the hands of the Yugoslav army, but it appears that it was then subsequently taken over by the (KLA)."
The KLA used the post as a staging area for sending supplies to its forces inside Kosovo.
Pentagon officials said because they have no direct links to the rebel group, they don't always know where KLA forces are located.
Shea also said that a prison struck Friday in Istok had served as a "major (Serb) staging post since last October." Yugoslav officials said 19 people, including inmates and guards, were killed in the attack.
Serb authorities said the prison held mainly KLA sympathizers.
"I don't think many Kosovar Albanians will shed a tear if that prison is not being used because many of them have suffered very badly from their detention there," Shea said.
NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24 to force Milosevic to withdraw military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo. In order to stop bombing, NATO is demanding that he allow hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees to return to their homes and accept an international peacekeeping force, with NATO at its core, in Kosovo.
Milosevic has refused to comply until the bombing ends, and NATO says it will not stop the bombing until Milosevic complies.
Yugoslavia blames NATO's airstrikes for the mass exodus of Kosovars from the Serbian province. NATO says that Milosevic's forces are engaging in a systematic ethnic cleaning operation, removing ethnic Albanians from their homes and in some cases using them as "human shields" against NATO's airstrikes.
Thousands of refugees crossed from Kosovo into neighboring Albania and Macedonia on Friday and Saturday, after a week-long lull. Efforts to relocate refugees in camps too close to the Albania-Kosovo border were under way, Shea said, as well as a continued evacuation operation aimed at getting as many refugees as possible out of Macedonia and into third countries.
Refugees crossing the border are telling stories of being forced at gunpoint from their homes, Shea said, and being forced to walk to the border from points miles away.
Shea also said that a U.N. fact-finding team was in Kosovo, where it had been denied access to a number of villages by Serb officials. But they did manage to visit one village, which they found "completely deserted" with "signs of looting and hasty departures," he said.
Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, John Raedler and Walter Rodgers contributed to this report.
Serb officials say Yugoslavia 'ready to cut a deal'
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