NATO will mount simulated air raids and bombing runs over Albania and Macedonia in the next few days, flexing its military muscle to warn Yugoslavia against attacking ethnic Albanians in the separatist province of Kosovo.
Alliance defense ministers Thursday authorized the air power exercise, which could launch NATO warplanes from French, British or U.S. aircraft carriers in the Adriatic. Nearby air bases, such as Aviano Air Base in Italy, could also be used in the effort."The deed is done," one NATO official said of the ministers' approval.
The exercise of allied military might recalls NATO's air strikes over Bosnia several years ago - its first military action ever - which helped bring about the Dayton peace accords. Alliance officials said they hoped the exercise would have the same effect, without leading to actual strikes.
NATO has about 150 warplanes from 10 nations in the region in support of the Bosnia operation, which could be put to use in the exercise.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the exercise will be carried out in the next few days and could include simulated rocket attacks by helicopters as well as bombing raids by planes.
German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, in remarks to his 15 fellow NATO defense ministers meeting here, said such action, in line with recommendations from NATO ambassadors, "would serve as a serious warning to Belgrade."
The ministers also instructed NATO military planners to look into direct military action in Kosovo, with "particular consideration to air strikes against selected targets and the employment of air and/or ground forces if necessary to enforce a settlement for Kosovo, as a last resort," Ruehe said.
According to a senior NATO official, the exercise is designed to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to order a cease-fire, withdraw Army forces and halt the repression of the majority ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province, and enter serious negotiations with separatists to end the conflict.
The Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been battling Yugoslav forces for independence, must also cease their armed struggle, the official said. The allies do not support their drive for independence.
Defense Secretary William Cohen met privately with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana before he and NATO colleagues agreed Thursday on steps to stop the fighting between the Serb-led Yugoslav army and police against ethnic Albanians.
Speaking in Rome prior to flying to Brussels, Cohen said he hoped the West would not have to resort to military action.