Serbia offensive: Clinton acts to avert a `catastrophe'

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WITHIN 15 minutes of the announcement from Nato headquarters that air strikes had begun, President Bill Clinton went on television to justify the action to the American public.

Speaking from the podium in the White House briefing room, Mr Clinton said that Nato forces had intervened to prevent a "greater catastrophe" in Kosovo and blamed the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, for choosing aggression over peace and provoking what he called a "full-blown crisis" in the province. "If we do not act," Mr Clinton said, "clearly it will get even worse. Only firmness now can prevent greater catastrophe later."

He cited three objectives: "First, to demonstrate the seriousness of Nato's opposition to aggression and its support for peace. Second, to deter President Milosevic from continuing and escalating his attacks on helpless civilians by imposing a price for those attacks. And third, if necessary, to damage Serbia's capacity to wage war against Kosovo by diminishing its military capability."

Mr Clinton repeated his warning of the previous day that United States forces could incur casualties. "This action is not risk-free," he said, "but I have concluded that the dangers of action now are clearly outweighed by the risks of failing to act."

Shortly before the air strikes began the State Department spokesman James Rubin warned Mr Milosevic that he should not interpret Nato's use of force as giving him a free hand to act elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Broaching the possibility that Serbian forces might enter Montenegro, Mr Rubin said that such action would "only fuel regional instability and escalate the conflict with Nato". He also warned that casualties in Montenegro from Nato action could not be ruled out. Mr Rubin's warning showed not only that US administration discussions had encompassed such an eventuality, but also that Nato operations might go beyond the envisaged air strikes.

The White House and the State Department - and later the Pentagon - were at pains to emphasise that yesterday's action was part of a Nato operation, ordered and executed by the alliance, not by the US alone. The point was made implicitly by the fact that the first announcement came not from Washington or London, but from Brussels.

While US politicians maintained a supportive, if not completely united, front once air strikes had become inevitable, there was still rumbling dissent among Republicans. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam war hero with presidential aspirations, voted reluctantly in the Senate to support military intervention, but said he felt the action was "not well thought out, not coherent".

Mr Clinton was due to give a longer exposition of the reasons for US involvement and its objectives from the Oval Office later in the evening. This second appearance, at peak evening viewing time, was a clear concession to critics who chided him for not yet having "sold" the case for military action convincingly enough to the American public.

So far, the public has shown little unease, or even interest in the latest developments. Yesterday, any unease seemed confined to political circles. That could change, however, at the first reports of US casualties or an extension of the conflict.

Mary Dejevsky