NATO Jets Stage Balkans Exercise
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AP) _ NATO fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft roared into the sky today, hoping to intimidate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by showing how quickly and powerfully the Western alliance can deploy its forces.
Eighty-five aircraft from 13 of NATO’s 16 member countries _ including the United States _ staged several hours of aerial exercises over Albania and Macedonia, which border Yugoslavia.
Milosevic’s Serb-led army and police have cracked down on dissent in Kosovo province, inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians. More than 300 people have been killed since March and thousands have fled across the border into Albania.
Western leaders want to halt the violence. But they do not want to be seen giving comfort to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is fighting for independence of the province.
``This is an exercise intended to demonstrate the alliance’s commitment to peace and stability in the region and the alliance’s ability to project power into the region,″ said Lt. Gen. Michael Short, commander of NATO air forces in the alliance’s southern Europe division.
The planes began departing about 7:50 a.m. today, leaving from air bases in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Britain and the Adriatic Sea. Support planes, including refueling tankers, already were in the air.
Afterward, American pilots were pleased with how today’s exercise _ code named Determined Falcon _ went.
``I don’t think anybody in Serbia decided to take off today,″ Capt. Bryan Johnson said as he climbed down from his sleek, gray airplane.
In Padesh, Albania, residents and Kosovo refugees who watched the NATO air show today said it probably was not enough to stop the bloodshed in Kosovo.
Hivzi Hysa, a 42-year-old Kosovo refugee, said the NATO maneuvers ``are only a signal and nothing else. Signals are not enough to stop the violence in Kosovo.″
Another refugee, Xhem Shehu, said the NATO maneuvers had so angered the Serbs that Serb infantry and helicopters with floodlights harassed those fleeing through the mountains to Albania on Sunday night.
Shehu said about 3,000 people from Kosovo had been camping up in the mountains for two weeks. After the Serbs tracked them down last night, some 400 people fled in a panic into Albania today, mostly women with babies and elderly people.
In the Albanian capital of Tirana, the planes nearly skimmed the rooftops, startling some residents.
``What the hell is going on?″ said Vjollca Beja, 37, who ran with her 4-year-old son to take refuge in a Tirana shop, unaware that the NATO planes were no threat.
``I thought the war started,″ she said later.
The fighting in Kosovo has sparked alarm that the violence could spread south to Albania and Macedonia, which agreed to let their territory be used for the exercises.
Major Luis Villar, who flew a Spanish F-18 in today’s exercise, said the planes kept at least 15 miles away from the Yugoslav border.
All NATO members sent aircraft except Iceland and Luxembourg, which have no air forces, and Canada, which could not deploy planes to Europe on such short notice.
The air exercise was ordered by NATO defense ministers on Thursday, who also asked NATO military planners to look at a wide range of options for future action, including direct intervention in Yugoslavia with air and ground forces.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev today publicly rebuked a top U.S. military commander, accusing NATO of failing to consult with Moscow on holding air exercises over the Balkans.
The rare public clash came as the Russian Foreign Ministry said Milosevic’s imminent meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow would be ``potentially decisive″ in defusing the conflict in Kosovo.
Sergeyev gave visiting Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, a dressing-down before reporters. He said NATO decided to launch the air exercises only after he left Brussels.
However, Cohen said he and other NATO ministers had ``a number of meetings″ with Sergeyev at NATO headquarters last week.
``It was very clear NATO expected the air exercises to take place. ... It should come as no surprise to anyone that they took place today,″ Cohen said.
Milosevic is in Moscow today and Tuesday, and Yeltsin has promised to use what influence he has to defuse the situation in Kosovo. Moscow has strongly opposed any direct intervention in Yugoslavia, saying all diplomatic options have yet to be exhausted.
The Serb offensive in Kosovo has forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee their homes.