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NATO plans air exercises over Albania, Macedonia

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NATO will send warplanes and reconnaissance aircraft over Albania and Macedonia on Monday in a get-tough military exercise to impress Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - and press him to end his armed campaign in Kosovo province.

The show of force, code-named Determined Falcon, comes amid ever-louder demands for intervention to end fighting between Milosevic's Serb forces and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia. More than 300 people have been killed in recent months."The objective of this exercise is to demonstrate NATO's capability to project power rapidly into the region," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said in a statement Saturday from headquarters in Brussels.

The exercise is scheduled to last from early morning to noon and involve simulated attack runs at high altitude - so high that the planes probably won't be visible to the naked eye from the ground, a U.S. Navy official said in Naples, Italy. The flights are designed to be picked up by Yugoslav radar screens.

Countries sending the 40 or so aircraft to the exercise include the United States, France, Spain, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium.

A senior military official traveling with Defense Secretary William Cohen said in Copenhagen, Denmark, that a three-ship group led by the USS Wasp was en route to the Adriatic Sea to participate in the exercise.

The Wasp, an amphibious helicopter assault ship, is outfitted with at least a half-dozen Harrier jump-jets. The official said the United States also will supply F-16s, KC-135 tankers and EA-6B airborne early warning planes.

The NATO exercises will probably come before Russian President Boris Yeltsin has a chance to talk to Milosevic, who will be in Moscow on Monday for talks with his longtime allies. The Russians, who oppose any direct action against Yugoslavia, believe that not all diplomatic means have been exhausted.

Yeltsin has promised to use his personal influence to try to defuse the tension in Kosovo, which risks spilling over into Yugoslavia's Balkan neighbors.

Ethnic Albanians are seeking independence for Kosovo, where they outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. Serbs consider the province the religious and cultural heartland of Serbia, the largest republic remaining in Yugoslavia.

The air exercises were one of several decisions by NATO defense ministers during their meeting here Thursday.

The ministers also ordered military planners to study options for further action - possibly including direct air strikes inside Yugoslavia and use of ground troops.

Still, NATO officials stress that direct military intervention is only one of several options.

"NATO continues to support a political solution which brings an end to the violence in Kosovo, provides an enhanced status for Kosovo, preserves the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and safeguards the human and civil rights of all inhabitants of Kosovo," Solana said.

Cohen, however, warned Friday that there is "a very short time frame to solve this peacefully."

NATO is walking a thin line between getting tough with Milosevic and giving aid and comfort to rebel forces the alliance does not support.

Albania has been pressing for weeks for NATO action to stem bloodshed in Kosovo.

The government of Macedonia, where the Slav majority has closer ties to Serbs than ethnic Albanians, also has approved a one-time "flyover through Macedonia's airspace" of NATO planes, but said future NATO requests would be considered separately.