Belgrade Bombed, but NATO Shows Signs of Strain

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Bombing downtown Belgrade may hasten the end of the Kosovo conflict, although not necessarily on terms the U.S. would prefer. As President Slobodan Milosevic's Defense and Interior ministries smoldered in ruins Saturday following a late-night cruise missile strike, Italy and France initiated a meeting next between key NATO powers and Russia to seek a political solution to the crisis. Washington had earlier dismissed Moscow's call for talks with the leading NATO powers and vowed to maintain its air campaign against Milosevic. But with the refugee crisis spiraling out of control and air strikes unable to do much more than punish Serb "ethnic cleansing" after the fact, some NATO members appear to be seeking to negotiate. A statement Saturday from NATO secretary general Javier Solana that the bombing will end if Milosevic withdraws his forces from Kosovo and allows NATO forces to escort refugees back to their homes was later withdrawn, with the alliance reaffirming that attacks will continue until Milosevic signs the Rambouillet peace deal. The conflicting statements, followed by caution from British prime minister Tony Blair against seeking a "premature or partial peace deal," indicates that NATO's unity of purpose may be under strain.

An estimated 315,000 Kosovars have fled the Serb campaign and the ever-swelling refugee population is beset by mounting hunger and disease. NATO has established a humanitarian headquarters to coordinate relief efforts in Albania, and Britain is pushing for the alliance to create, protect and supply a safe for refugees inside Macedonia. That country intensified the humanitarian crisis Saturday by closing its borders on the grounds that it could accomodate no more refugees. Even as it debates its plans to defeat Milosevic, the Western alliance is beginning find itself increasingly preoccupied with dealing with the consequences of 11 days of unchecked "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.