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NATO May Take Kosovo Offensive

September 26, 1998

VILAMOURA, Portugal (AP) _ For the first time, the NATO allies plan to take the offensive, readying bombers, missiles and warships to strike at a European neighbor that, at best, poses a vague threat to them.

The Kosovo crisis has dragged them into something new: they are publicly planning for hostilities, rather than reacting to them.

During 45 Cold War years, NATO never said it would not be the first to strike. Nor did it say it would be. It kept Moscow at bay with the threat of massive retaliation to any attack, a strategy that worked so well the allies were able to reap a huge ``peace dividend″ when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

``But that dividend has been paid out,″ Dutch Defense Minister Frank de Grave said Friday after a two-day NATO defense ministers meeting.

``NATO cannot go on endlessly cashing in that dividend. The world has not become a safer place. We still must invest in our security.″

Against that backdrop, the allies are preparing for air strikes on Yugoslavia unless President Slobodan Milosevic ends his attacks on ethnic Albanians struggling for independence in Kosovo. If necessary, NATO says it will attack with missiles and bombs, gradually intensifying the assault until Milosevic halts his offensive in Kosovo.

After months of contingency planning, NATO knows its way around Yugoslavia. For one thing, sources say, military planners have identified 600 surface-to-air missile sites across the country that would be targeted and knocked out along with their command and control centers.

Although allied air strikes helped end the Bosnian war, Kosovo is different.

``What we are really talking about here is a humanitarian disaster precipitated by the cold political calculus of an autocratic leader who has pursued a political strategy by military means against his own citizens,″ said Gen. Wesley K. Clark, supreme allied commander in Europe.

In Bosnia, NATO was a partner of the United Nations which passed 36 Security Council resolutions aimed at achieving peace.

NATO could have cited a half dozen of the resolutions to justify military action, particularly to retaliate for Bosnian Serb attacks against U.N. ``safe havens″ and to protect international peacekeepers.

Milosevic threatens no NATO troops or U.N. peacekeepers and considers Kosovo an internal matter. To him, the province was Serbia’s heartland in the Middle Ages and an integral part of the Serbian state since the Serbs regained independence from the Turks in 1878.

How then can NATO justify attacking a sovereign country that does not threaten it?

The United States and Germany lead a camp that argues that by bombing his own subjects, making almost 300,000 of them homeless and turning hundreds of villages into ghost towns, Milosevic undermines stability on NATO’s eastern doorstep.

An allied attack, they say, is about defending Western values and interests and NATO needs no formal approval for that from the United Nations.

``The United States believes that no authority from the Security Council is necessary,″ U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters here. ``The credibility of NATO is on the line.″

France and others are less sure. French Defense Minister Alain Richard, pressed by reporters, said: ``It would be irresponsible to say what the next step is going to be.″

The United States is confident that, in the end, the allies won’t let themselves be hog-tied by the need to get U.N. blessing for military action and thus run the risk of a Russian or Chinese veto.

This debate does not end with Kosovo. Next April, NATO leaders meet in Washington to approve a new overall post-Cold War strategic concept, one that will deal with new security risks and challenges just like the one the allies are facing from Belgrade today.

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