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Air war may have damaged less than NATO thought

DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia -- In the two weeks since NATO forces arrived in Kosovo, alliance officials have scaled back their initial estimates of the damage inflicted by the 78-day air campaign on the Yugoslav army, which they concede remains a force capable of maintaining Slobodan Milosevic's hold on power.

While NATO and Pentagon officials stand by their claims to have significantly damaged the Yugoslav army and special police, they acknowledge that the units that withdrew from Kosovo a week ago were clearly not as hobbled as they had believed.And those forces, they acknowledge, could be employed by Milosevic again, at least to squelch domestic disturbances within Serbia, and at most to either foment or face down a separatist threat from Yugoslavia's lesser republic, Montenegro.

"It's exaggerated," said a former senior allied official, who spoke to top European leaders in recent days, referring to NATO's early damage estimates. "NATO hit a lot of dummy and deception targets. It's an old Soviet ploy. Officials in Europe are very subdued. No one's pounding their chest over this."

Here in Djakovica, for example, NATO obliterated the Yugoslav army's World War II-era base. In what was left of the motor pool, 18 military vehicles, including one armored personnel carrier, were scattered Sunday in charred, twisted heaps.

Up close, however, it was clear that most of the destroyed vehicles were old wrecks, assembled there by the Serbs for repairs or junking. NATO's warplanes had not destroyed Yugoslavia's front-line fighting vehicles, but rather a junkyard.

From blown-out military barracks to exploded fuel tanks, the devastating results of NATO's bombing are obvious all across Kosovo. But the damage brought down on the Yugoslav army itself is less clear.

Even in those places where allied bombers launched intense attacks -- in Junik and the villages around Mount Pastrik in southern Kosovo where Yugoslav forces had massed against the Kosovo Liberation Army in the last weeks of the war -- there are few signs of the scorched carcasses of tanks or other military equipment that NATO officials expected to find.