The United States and its NATO allies are prepared to launch airstrikes against Serbian targets as early as this weekend to end the killing and displacement of ethnic Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo, two Clinton administration officials said Tuesday.
Support for strikes is likely to grow following the discovery Tuesday of a gruesome massacre of 16 ethnic Albanian civilians in the Serb village of Gornje Obrinje.
Western reporters found that 10 of the 16 were women, children or elderly, and the killers cut their throats or shot them in the back of their heads at close range.
The massacre took place Saturday, according to witnesses, who said that the killers wore the uniforms of the Serbian police and Yugoslav army. It was part of a furious Serb offensive over the weekend that preceded Monday's announcement by the Serbian government of a unilateral cease-fire.
"If the reports . . . are true, it's another indication of the growing crisis in the region and the necessity for a strong and decisive end to what is happening," said David Leavy of the National Security Council.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, officials today said they were awaiting a report next week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on whether Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had complied with a recent Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, with the possibility of military intervention thereafter if he were found to be defying the United Nations.
"This will be an important benchmark for the international community for judging whether Milosevic means what he says . . . It will be an important moment," a NATO official said.
He said allies so far had seen "no evidence" to back Belgrade's claim that operations had ceased. He noted that "certain heavy weapons" had been moved out, suggesting that Milosevic was heeding warnings that he faced airstrikes, but described the pullback as "still totally inadequate."
Diplomatic sources said NATO was treating the massacre allegations with caution and was also urging that independent investigators be dispatched as quickly as possible to determine the facts.
Britain's foreign secretary today called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the massacre. "This was not an act of war, it was plain cold murder," Robin Cook said.
Cook, whose country takes over the Security Council presidency on Thursday, said NATO airstrikes could follow the receipt of Annan's report next week.
U.S. officials said they hold Milosevic responsible for the deteriorating situation in Kosovo.
"It just underscores the ugliness and the brutality of the Serb presence in Kosovo . . . and underscores the rationale for the efforts that we've been making both diplomatically and through NATO," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.
Yugoslav officials said Tuesday that the cease-fire was holding and denied that Serb police were involved in the massacre. Ethnic Albanians said fighting continued in south-central Kosovo.
Russia's new foreign minister said today he would do all he could to prevent the airstrikes.
"Unfortunately there is a danger (of force being used), and NATO does not hide the fact that there are different variants for using force in the Balkans. So our task now is to not allow it," Igor Ivanov told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Russia last week approved the Security Council's cease-fire resolution Russian officials say that vote does not constitute backing use of force and contend that a further Security Council resolution would be needed if NATO is to launch airstrikes, giving Russia the chance to veto such plans.
Germany's outgoing Cabinet today offered 14 fighter planes for the airstrikes, although a decision on whether they actually leave the ground will probably fall to the newly elected government.
Pentagon officials said they had some indications Tuesday that the special Serb police units appeared to be halting their operations, but a National Security Council senior official said that Serb compliance with a cease-fire would not alone cancel plans for a NATO military strike -- especially in light of the massacre reports.
The strikes will take place unless NATO receives a "concrete commitment" from Milosevic "to go into a long-term plan on some form of democratic autonomy for Kosovo and a commitment of pulling his paramilitary forces out and putting his military units back in the barracks," the National Security Council official said.
On Thursday, the administration's top foreign and military policy team is scheduled to go to Congress to lay the groundwork for airstrikes, which some lawmakers oppose.