Eighty NATO warplanes from 13 nations converged on several regional bases Sunday to prepare a show of power over Albania and Macedonia that allied leaders hope will convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down in Kosovo.
"This is an exercise intended to demonstrate the alliance's commitment to peace and stability in the region and the alliance's ability to project power," Lt. Gen. Michael Short, commander of NATO air forces in the alliance's southern Europe division, said at Aviano Air Base Sunday evening.The fighting in Kosovo has sparked alarm that the violence could spread to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, which have agreed to let their territory be used for the exercises.
The planes will come from 15 bases in five nations as well as from carriers in the Adriatic Sea. They were scheduled to participate in exercise Determined Falcon beginning around dawn (midnight MDT) Monday until about midday, flying a route over the Adriatic and into Albanian and Macedonian airspace, Short said.
The NATO action, ordered by allied defense ministers Thursday, comes as the death toll in the Serbian province of Kosovo continues to rise in the face of a government offensive to put down a rebellion by the Kosovo Liberation Army.
More than 300 people have died as the Serb-led Yugoslav government tries to suppress the increasingly radical independence movement among Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province's population.
The Western allies oppose independence for the province, but they also want to stop Milosevic's brutal attempts to suppress dissent.
Russia has strongly opposed any direct intervention in Yugoslavia, considering that all of the diplomatic options have yet to be exhausted.
The great fear is that if the two sides aren't brought to the negotiating table, the Kosovo fighting will spill over Yugoslavia's borders and ignite a wider Balkan war.
Albanian Defense Minister Luan Hajdaraga said in an interview last week he is convinced Milosevic wants "to dominate the situation by military means." The danger is, he said, that "those means can spread to Albania."
Hajdaraga said 15,000 refugees have already flooded from Kosovo into northern Albania, putting enormous strains on his government.
NATO also has ordered its military planners to study a range of options for even tougher action, including direct military intervention in Yugoslavia with air strikes and use of ground forces. NATO insists, however, that it is only studying its options to be ready for any political decisions.
Countries sending aircraft for the exercises include the United States, France, Britain, Spain, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium.
On the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault carrier in the Adriatic which will provide four Harrier attack craft for the mission, Col. Emerson Gardner told reporters: "We need to show the people that need to know exactly what we can do."
"We will be close enough that the Serbs will know NATO will be there," he said when asked how close to border and how close to the ground the aircraft will fly.
Short would not say how close to Yugoslavia's border the allied aircraft will fly.
The United States will reportedly supply Air Force F-16 fighters, KC-135 tankers and EA-6B airborne early warning planes.
The amphibious force led by the USS Wasp includes the amphibious assault ship USS Trenton and the dock landing ship USS Portland.
Meanwhile, fighting escalated on several Kosovo fronts Sunday, with Serbs and ethnic Albanians accusing each other of starting clashes that killed at least five people.
Serb forces launched 500 grenades into villages in the Decani area in western Kosovo, according to the Kosovo Information center, which is close to the pro-independence Albanian leadership.
In the capital, Pristina, Serbian police colonel Novica Zdravkovic said ethnic Albanian militants killed two policemen and injured two others in separate incidents in Kosovo's southwestern Djakovica region and the Decani area.