NATO strikes target Serb ground forces, complicate GI release efforts
April 8, 1999
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- As Serb authorities claimed civilian casualties in attacks on Pristina, NATO warplanes peppered dozens of targets across Yugoslavia before dawn broke Thursday.
Two large explosions jolted Belgrade's city center shortly before midnight, sending a huge white cloud of smoke billowing over the Yugoslav capital. The target was a former Army command center.
Serbian television also showed pictures of an explosion in Kraljevo, a central Yugoslav city located about 75 miles south of Belgrade.
An unmanned U.S. spy plane was presumed to have been shot down in Yugoslavia on Wednesday, although the evidence is "not conclusive," NATO officials said.
The twin-engine propeller aircraft -- a "Hunter" unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV -- is a pilotless U.S. Army reconnaissance airplane that provides real-time intelligence to commanders on the ground.
One military official told CNN, "This is why we put UAVs in high-risk areas."
Earlier, NATO said it achieved a "major breakthrough" in its intensified air campaign against Serb ground forces by wiping out a Yugoslav armored column involved in the crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
At the same time, Pentagon officials told CNN there will be a delay in the highly anticipated arrival of 24 Apache attack helicopters in the region that are to help go after Yugoslav troops. The helicopters were to arrive within 7 to 10 days, but officials now say it may be the end of April before the choppers arrive.
Washington said there was evidence of military activity by Yugoslav troops in Kosovo -- despite a publicly announced unilateral cease-fire to halt fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army.
NATO officials and humanitarian agencies said it appeared Serb authorities had closed off Kosovo border checkpoints and were forcing Kosovar Albanians to turn back into the province.
, acting president of Cyprus, left Athens, Greece, for Belgrade Thursday in an effort to secure the release of three captured U.S. soldiers.
He told reporters in Nicosia there were conditions that needed to be negotiated, and a source close to Kyprianou said the overnight NATO bombings in Yugoslavia have complicated release efforts.
NATO and White House officials said Yugoslav President "would be making a mistake" if he believes the release of the three soldiers will cease Operation Allied Force. They pledged to press on with attacks until NATO's military objectives are achieved.
In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, CNN's Brent Sadler described the city as a "ghost town" after Western journalists were given their first glimpse of the bomb damage there.
Sadler was taken to a mostly Serbian section of town in the largely populated ethnic Albanian city. He said there was heavy bombing damage to a postal and telecommunications building in central Pristina. Civilian areas also appeared hit.
Serb officials said 10 civilians were killed.
Sadler said Pristina was "eerily quiet."
CNN's Alessio Vinci, reporting from Belgrade, said two massive nighttime blasts in the city's center shook buildings and rattled windows as far as a mile away.
The explosion hit in an area across from a large hospital and near several other government buildings, the official said.
In Washington, sources told CNN Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre that F-14s and F-18s fighters from the newly arrived USS Theodore Roosevelt participated in the strikes -- the second day the carrier has been involved in Balkan combat. Low-flying, tank-killing A-10s also engaged in their first combat missions of the war.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was asked at a news briefing whether the alliance would agree to a Milosevic demand that bombing attacks be suspended for 24 hours in exchange for the release of the soldiers.
"Of course not," he responded. "The mission goes on."
Shea said there was no basis in international law for "paying a price" to secure the release of captured soldiers.
"The NATO bombing will continue until the military objectives are met," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.
But sources close to Kyprianou have told CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers in Nicosia that the Yugoslavs are "making negative noises."
These sources say Kyprianou still hopes a release could happen Thursday, but the Wednesday night raid on Belgrade may have complicated things.
Kyprianou has asked for a 24-hour cease-fire to allow him to pursue his mission. NATO rejects this, saying there is no basis in international law for "paying a price" to secure the release of captured soldiers."
A senior U.S. military planner says that while it's not certain that the three American POWs held by Yugoslavia will be released, the pieces are in place to accomplish a handover as early as today.
The official said a Greek plane was standing by to take the three U.S. soldiers from Belgrade to Athens. There, a U.S. C-9 transport would pick the three up and transfer them to the American airbase in Ramstein, Germany.
Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic has said a visit by a delegation from Cyprus "would be welcomed."
He said the three U.S. soldiers, captured a week ago while on patrol near the Yugoslav-Macedonian border, were being treated well. Asked if they were being readied for release, Vujovic said he did not want to speculate.
Shea said there were "very alarming" reports that Serb soldiers who had been pushing ethnic Albanian refugees across the borders of Kosovo into Albania and Macedonia were now pushing them back into Kosovo.
Lockhart said it appeared Serb authorities have closed the borders and forced refugees to go back into the province. "Exactly where I can't tell you," he said.
Asked if this was a positive development, Lockhart bristled: "This is a regime that has gone in and brutally murdered thousands of people. This is a regime that has gone in and rampaged through towns through extortion, murder, rape."
"We don't know what his plans are for these people, but we know what he's done to them in the past," Lockhart said.
In addition, despite Yugoslavia's announcement that it was declaring a cease-fire in Kosovo, NATO said Serb Army and paramilitary groups were continuing to attack the Kosovo Liberation Army in western Kosovo.
Russia will propose a meeting of world leaders to discuss the situation in Yugoslavia. That, according to Russian news agency Interfax, which quotes "informed sources."
Interfax also quotes Russian President Boris Yeltsin as saying Russia is preparing new initiatives for settling the conflict in Kosovo. He said supplying arms to Yugoslavia would mean drawing Russia into a large war". He called that the "principal position of Russia."
Yeltsin said that thanks to the initiative of Russia, Milosevic has taken "constructive steps" and made a "strong announcement" of a temporary cease-fire, plus other steps which Yeltsin did not elaborate upon.
Meanwhile CNN correspondent Satinder Bindra reported from a refugee camp at Kukes, Albania that up to 10,000 Kosovars in Macedonia had been moved to central Albania, not northern Albania as previously believed.
The fate of the group was not clear he said, but it appeared they were forced across the border into Albania.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said he had reports Serb forces were forcing stranded ethnic Albanians waiting on the Yugoslav side of the border back into the Kosovo. "Exactly where I can't tell you," he said.
Aid officials are now concerned about sanitary conditions in the Kukes camp. There were also fears Thursday that an outbreak of measles that had infected 10 children, could spread.
After describing a cease-fire offer from the Milosevic government as "clearly insufficient," NATO sent waves of warplanes to bombard Yugoslavia overnight.
Air Commodore David Wilby said NATO had a "robust day" against Yugoslav targets including what he described as "the first major breakthrough" in attacks on Serb ground forces in Kosovo.
He said on Tuesday a convoy of seven to 12 vehicles of Serb Army and paramilitary forces moving in western Kosovo was hit with cluster bombs. Wilby said overnight NATO planes flew 439 sorties, attacking multiple targets at 28 locations.
"From a military perspective and if I was on the Serb side now and I saw the sort of targets which I could appreciate very well as a military man being struck, being hit, being degraded, being disrupted with relative impunity then I would be very disheartened," Wilby said.
NATO has vowed to continue attacks on Yugoslavia until Milosevic agrees to a peace deal for Kosovo which would include the presence of alliance peacekeepers.
NATO reports 'breakthrough' against Serb forces
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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