War In The Balkans: Clinton keen to keep all options open chiefs

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT CLINTON set off on a flying visit to Europe last night, signalling that the United States wanted to keep open all options - military and diplomatic - to resolve the conflict in Kosovo. The 24-hour trip, for consultations at Nato headquarters near Brussels, and a meeting with the three freed servicemen at the US military base at Ramstein, southern Germany, is the closest the US President has come to the theatre of war since Nato air strikes began five weeks ago.

There were said to be no plans, however, for him to visit US troops at Aviano in Italy, from where most Nato bombing raids are co-ordinated, or to inspect refugee camps in the states neighbouring Kosovo, as the French and British Prime Ministers have recently done.

Mr Clinton left Washington just hours after the Russian special envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, completed an additional, unscheduled round of talks with Vice-President Al Gore and other senior members of the administration. The breakfast meeting - with the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, in attendance - was held at Mr Chernomyrdin's request, but it was unclear how much progress had been made.

After a 90-minute meeting with Mr Clinton at the White House on Monday, the Russian envoy said they were "closer to a diplomatic solution" but he declined to elaborate beyond mentioning the general area of discussion - the circumstances and the conditions under which Nato would pause in its air assault on Yugoslavia. The precise terms on which Nato might agree to halt the bombing - temporarily or permanently - and the composition of the force that would subsequently oversee the return of refugees to Kosovo are the two areas where there has seemed to be room for manoeuvre.

Mr Chernomyrdin's stay in Washington was accompanied by what some saw as a softening in US, and especially presidential, rhetoric towards Yugoslavia. Mr Clinton held out an offer to suspend the bombing if it would help to stop the repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. "We can have a bombing pause, if it's clear that it will be in aid of that larger purpose," he said.

He reiterated, however, that Yugoslavia had to accept Nato's conditions - the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, the safe return of the refugees, acceptance of an armed international security force, and self- government for Kosovo.

He also stressed that, while the US welcomed the release of its three servicemen, that by itself was insufficient: "We have to have some indication ... that the release of the soldiers is somehow related to a general change in the human attitude towards the people of Kosovo,and we don't have that yet."

Officials sought to play down any shift in Mr Clinton's views on a security force for Kosovo, insisting that there was no difference between Mr Clinton's reference to a "strong Nato element", and the previous formulation that Nato should be "at the core" of such a force.

The political waters were muddied still further when the Senate voted down a motion sponsored by the Republican presidential contender, John McCain of Arizona, that would have supported an extension of the war and given Mr Clinton the authority to deploy US ground troops. While predicted, the heavy defeat (by 78 to 22 votes) left an impression of political timidity, compounding last week's tied vote on a similar motion in the House.

Leading Democrats pointed out that Mr Clinton had not sought backing for such a move and the White House had actually lobbied against the resolution, but Mr McCain insisted: "The President of the United States is prepared to lose a war rather than do the hard work, the politically risky work, of fighting it as the leader of the greatest nation on earth should fight when our interests and values are imperiled."