NATO Strikes Yugoslavia’s Capital
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Flames lit the dawn sky orange in Yugoslavia’s capital today after the first NATO airstrike in downtown Belgrade destroyed the headquarters of security forces accused of waging a campaign against Kosovo Albanians.
Three explosions rocked a government quarter of Belgrade just before 1 a.m. today (6 p.m. EST Friday). Flames quickly engulfed the buildings of the Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries.
Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, whose police center was burned to the ground, said the attack was ``an act of monsters and criminals.″
The bombings, close to residential areas and the city’s main medical complex, shook a nearby maternity hospital and a row of embassies _ including that of the United States _ but they were untouched by the fire. No one was reported wounded in the strikes.
Angry residents joined hands in a human chain, shouting ``Serbia! Serbia!″ Many pinned target symbols to their jackets, challenging NATO to hit them.
The bombings signaled a promised escalation of the NATO air campaign intended to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a peace plan on Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.
Air raid sirens also blared in Nis and Novi Sad, the two other major cities in Yugoslavia.
The NATO air war had been targeting military and security units directed by the defense and interior ministries. The Western alliance has warned it would expand its targets, saying no place in Yugoslavia would be immune from strikes.
``We recognized when we started that this air campaign would not be a week or two operation,″ President Clinton said Friday. ``We must be determined, we must be persistent, we must be patient if we expect to see this mission through.″
Belgrade residents said they heard the sound of incoming missiles followed by strong explosions that shook their houses and windows. Serbian television broadcast video footage of women clutching babies while evacuating the nearby maternity ward.
Hours after the bombings, fires at the Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries were mostly extinguished.
Belgrade’s independent FoNet news agency reported 20 firefighting teams were at the scene, along with ambulances.
Several policemen at the scene said the Serbian interior ministry building was ``evacuated on time,″ FoNet said.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said, ``We can confirm that targets are being hit in downtown Belgrade.″
``We’re striking at targets (Milosevic) uses to control the forces responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,″ Bacon said, adding that bad weather had postponed earlier planned strikes on Belgrade.
Speaking on CNN television, Vuk Draskovic, a deputy federal premier, claimed the overnight NATO raid on central Belgrade had brought ``Europe very close to a European war.″
He also claimed Belgrade leaders would seek a political settlement with Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate ethnic Albanian leader who is believed to be under house arrest.
Kosovo has been wracked by war since Milosevic launched a campaign against separatist ethnic Albanian rebels in February 1998.
NATO launched air attacks on March 24 to try to force Milosevic to accept a peace plan for Kosovo that would include NATO peacekeeping troops on the ground.
Thousands more ethnic Albanian refugees crossed borders out of Kosovo Friday, and masses overwhelmed local communities and relief agencies struggling to supply food, medicine and blankets.
Stopping the offensive in Kosovo by Milosevic’s forces and preventing the conflict from spreading were key goals of the NATO campaign. But NATO spokesman Jamie Shea announced that 36,500 ethnic Albanians had been forced out Thursday alone, in addition to 21,000 the day before, causing a refugee crisis he described as ``extremely grave, getting graver by the hour.″
``We are no longer facing an internal Yugoslav crisis. We are facing a crisis of the entire region with far-reaching consequences,″ Shea said.
Air Commodore David Wilby said Friday that NATO targets in overnight bombing and missile strikes included highway bridges, army garrisons and a petroleum production and storage plant _ all in Kosovo or near the province in southern Serbia.
State television reported NATO missiles hit an army barracks in Vranje in southeastern Serbia, while Tanjug said NATO jets struck targets near the western Kosovo town of Klina, 30 miles west of Pristina, the provincial capital. It was the first reported attack near Klina, located along a major highway junction used by Serb forces.
The Serb-run Media Center in Pristina reported that missiles had hit military barracks in the southern Kosovo town of Urosevac and an explosion occurred near the border town of Kacanik.
Tanjug said missiles hit the southwestern Kosovo town of Djakovica twice on Friday, and that other attacks killed two ethnic Albanians and injured six, including two children.
The Serbian government announced it would start rationing gasoline and diesel fuel. It said Serbian vehicle owners could collect coupons from police beginning today, while foreigners would get coupons from the Yugoslav foreign ministry.
Also Friday, Tanjug quoted an investigating judge as saying unspecified court proceedings had begun in the case of three U.S. soldiers captured this week by Yugoslav forces. It was not clear if the soldiers attended the proceedings, which were described as a gathering of evidence to decide what charges, if any, would be filed.
Early today, Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic said the three soldiers were prisoners of war, the most authoritative reference yet by a top Yugoslav official to the term, which confers on them protected status under the Geneva conventions on the conduct of war.
``I can tell you for sure, I tell your fellow Americans that American prisoners of war, the three American soldiers, are safe and treated in a civilized manner,″ Jovanovic said in an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live.