NATO set to enter Kosovo on Saturday
June 10, 1999
SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- With authorization orders in hand, NATO troops are poised to enter Kosovo on Saturday, to implement a peace deal and clear the way for hundreds of thousands of refugees to return home.
NATO military officials said an initial force of British and French troops would move into Serbia's southernmost province on Saturday, quickly followed by U.S. soldiers and Marines.
NATO ambassadors issued the final activation order for the Kosovo force on Thursday, soon after the U.N. Security Council gave its backing to the peace plan. The council approved the resolution 14-0, with China -- one of the most implacable critics of the NATO airstrikes -- abstaining.
About 18,000 NATO troops had been waiting just outside Yugoslav territories for orders to enter the strife-torn region. The Kosovo force will eventually grow to some 50,000 troops.
The commander of NATO's peacekeepers, British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, said his troops were ready to go.
"We shall be off quite quickly, and what we do in Kosovo, I assure you, will be both robust and quite even-handed," he said.
Yugoslav army troops and Serb police began streaming out of Kosovo early Thursday afternoon, followed by carloads of Serb civilians afraid to remain without military protection. A few hours later, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana announced the alliance had suspended its air campaign.
Solana submitted the news to the United Nations, and Shen Guofang, China's deputy U.N. ambassador, said his country would not use its veto to block the peace plan approved by the Group of Eight nations and Yugoslavia.
China has bitterly criticized NATO's attacks, particularly after a NATO bomb destroyed its embassy in Belgrade, killing three of its citizens. Shen said the war has been a political disaster for the alliance.
"It shows that in the future any use of force should get the authorization of the Security Council," he said.
Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov concurred, adding that he hoped the vote would deter NATO from acting on its own in the future.
"I hope this is a change not only on this, but on other issues as well," Lavrov said.
In Washington, U.S. President Bill Clinton said NATO had "achieved victory for a safer world" in Kosovo. He warned Serbs that the United States will not help them rebuild from the bombing "as long as your nation is ruled by an indicted war criminal."
Clinton added: "But we are ready to provide humanitarian aid now and to help to build a better future for Serbia, too, when its government represents tolerance and freedom, not repression and terror."
In Belgrade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic declared a sort of victory: He said Yugoslavia had preserved its existing borders in the face of massive aerial bombardment.
"The territorial integrity of our country can never be questioned again," he said. "We survived and defended the country and raised the entire problem to the pinnacle of world authority -- the pyramid -- the United Nations."
Milosevic said the question of independence for Kosovo -- which prompted more than a year of ethnic strife in the Serbian province -- was no longer an issue.
The leader said the Yugoslav army and special police forces in Kosovo lost fewer than 600 men during the fighting. That number is about a tenth of the estimates that NATO released last week.
"We demonstrated our army cannot be defeated," he said.
The alliance lost two fliers during the war -- both U.S. Army helicopter pilots who died on a training mission in Albania when their helicopter gunship crashed.
Yugoslav soldiers laughed and flashed a victory sign as their armored vehicles began heading northward from Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina. Hundreds of troops were on the move, along with ammunition trucks, communications gear and other equipment.
The cease-fire agreement outlines a strict timetable that Yugoslavia must follow, including a withdrawal from northern Kosovo within 24 hours. Yugoslav and NATO generals Wednesday agreed to details of the troop withdrawal from Kosovo, following hours of intense marathon talks along the Yugoslav- Macedonian border.
Under the terms of the agreement, the withdrawal must be complete by June 21.
"NATO is ready for its new mission -- a mission to bring people back to their homes and to build a lasting and just peace in Kosovo," Solana said.
The war began after Yugoslavia rejected a peace agreement for Kosovo similar to one it accepted last week. Those accords were aimed at ending a year of ethnic conflict in the mostly ethnic-Albanian province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic of Serbia.
Solana warned that NATO could resume its bombardment if Yugoslavia reneged on its agreement to withdraw. And he added that separatist rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army must also stand down during the withdrawal.
"Violence or noncompliance by any party will not be tolerated," he said.
The peacekeeping force -- dubbed KFOR -- will be charged with protecting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees who are expected to return home after fleeing during the conflict.
In an attempt to reassure Serbs in Kosovo who fear reprisals from returning refugees and the KLA, Jackson said KFOR would enforce a cease-fire "for all the people of Kosovo, no matter what their ethnic background."
But he cautioned that his troops could impose only "rather basic" law and order on the province at first.
Shinasi Rama, a representative of the KLA, said the guerrillas would observe the cease-fire.
"We have declared a unilateral cease-fire, and we will respect it all over Kosovo," he said. But he said the KLA would defend itself and civilians from any Serb reprisals.
Still unresolved Thursday was the issue of what role Russia would play in KFOR. Talks between U.S. and Russian special envoys on Russia's participation in KFOR continued in Moscow on Thursday as Russia's parliament condemned President Boris Yeltsin's point man on the Balkans.
The State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, asked Yeltsin to fire Viktor Chernomyrdin, his special envoy on the Balkans. The vote has no legal force, but reflects the anger toward Chernomyrdin from communists and others on the political left, who accuse him of selling out to NATO.
Chernomyrdin and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott were trying to settle the peacekeeping issue. Talbott said it would not be possible for Russia to have a separate sector in Kosovo when peacekeeping forces move in.
Yugoslav troops and Serb special police spent more than a year trying to suppress the KLA, and NATO repeatedly accused Yugoslavia of unleashing the army on ethnic Albanian civilians once the air war began. The reports of atrocities in Kosovo led to Milosevic's indictment by a U.N. war crimes tribunal.
The international court also brought charges against four other Yugoslav leaders, including the president of Serbia and the chief of staff of the army.
When Jackson's force crosses the Yugoslav frontier, they will find not only a shattered land but "find horrors which nobody should have to face," British Defense Secretary George Robertson said Thursday.
"They'll have to work their way through minefields and booby traps. They'll have to face the risk of attacks by way of individuals who disregard their orders to leave," he said.
"They'll have to cope with human misery and starvation that has been left behind by the Serbs, and I fear that they will find evidence of atrocities, which will shock and sicken even them."
But evidence of war crimes beyond the testimony of refugees may be difficult to obtain. U.S. officials said Yugoslavia could be trying to conceal mass graves that NATO says it has spotted through aerial photographs.
"It's difficult to be completely clear about what happened, but it looks as if a bulldozer or other earth moving equipment has been run over where the original graves used to be," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.
Yugoslavia agrees to withdraw forces from Kosovo
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