Updated: 20 May 1999 Morning Briefings


20 May 1999

Morning Briefing

By Jamie Shea

Jamie Shea: Just to remind you that Prime Minister D'Alema of Italy is here this morning and he will be here at 12.30 with the Secretary General to give the combined joint press conference; he will be addressing the North Atlantic Council at 12 noon, about another hour from now and in a few moments he will begin a briefing on the current military situation with the Chairman of the Military Committee, Admiral Venturoni, and General Rupert Smith, the Deputy SACEUR. Those are the details of his programme and obviously there will be the normal 3 o'clock update with myself and General Jertz.

I would just like to give you the overnight details: over the last 24 hours, that is to say on Day 57 of operation Allied ForceI, NATO was able to take advantage of better weather to go back to the normal tempo, our intended tempo, of operations. Allied aircraft flew 446 sorties, 118 of those were specific strike sorties and another 35 were strike sorties against the Yugoslav air defence network and as has been our practice over the last few weeks, we used every opportunity to continue to strike hard at the Yugoslav forces on the ground in Kosovo.

Obviously, at the moment all of you and ourselves here too are very interested in the details of the complicated diplomacy which is ongoing and which is showing some signs of progress and that is extremely important and I want to stress how much we support and encourage those diplomatic efforts but I also want to stress at the same time that NATO's position is unchanged, our strategy is unchanged, there will be no relief for President Milosevic's forces on the ground in Kosovo until those forces withdraw.

Over the last 24 hours, we attacked fielded forces in Kosovo including tanks and armoured vehicles and artillery positions and we attacked also a surface-to-air transporter launcher and numerous other military vehicles. At the same time, NATO aircraft struck strategic targets throughout Serbia, the main targets were airfields at Pristina and Batanjica, Army facilities at Zinjani in Belgrade and at Istok, military communications stations at Belgrade and Stara Azova, a radio broadcast facility at Sorboron and at Subotica and at Kula and fuel storage sites at Sonbor, Batanjica and Jenica. We also struck a radio relay site at Losinca and an ammunition plant at Barij and all NATO aircraft returned safely to their bases after last night's operation and on Day 58 now the mission continues.

Questions & Answers

Jake Lynch, Sky News: On the desertions, Jamie, can you tell us any more about the nature and your assessment of the strength of reports of troop desertions, please?

Jamie Shea: Jake, we know at least 500 have deserted from the 7th Armoured Brigade, that seems to be the unit which has been most affected and these are not simply individual desertions, i.e. various people throwing down their weapons and leaving, this in fact constitutes a battalion so it is, if you like, an organised desertion and the reason why, as far as we can tell, is because these soldiers apart of course from being in a hopeless situation in Kosovo and taking a lot of punishment, were also disturbed when they heard reports of their families demonstrating at Krusevac being mistreated by the local police using water cannon to put down a demonstration and that is the reason why they wanted to go back home ostensibly to protect their families on that occasion.

We know from sources inside Yugoslavia that the Belgrade government seems to be now deciding that if you can't beat it, tolerate it and at least to acknowledge that these desertions are happening and secondly to try to avoid a mass desertion by not taking forceful measures to prevent that from happening, in fact there have even been some attempts by Belgrade to pretend that this is part of their partial troop withdrawal but as these people are throwing down their weapons and leaving and certainly we don't see tanks and artillery coming out, I don't think that this can be presented in any way as a partial troop withdrawal.

Having said that, we see increasing signs of war weariness across Yugoslavia. It is interesting that in the last few weeks there have been no more of these anti-war rock concerts, no more of these "spontaneous happenings" on bridges, indeed on Tuesday, 18 May, the state media made a noticeable shift away from patriotic and inflammatory broadcasting perhaps realising that this was no longer having quite the rousing effect on the population and we do know that in Krusevac the demonstrations against the war have been continuing, in fact according to the Democratic Party of Serbia there are reports that more than 800 reservists arrived in Krusevac yesterday from Kosovo and sporadic gunfire was heard in the town in the afternoon.

One of the problems with the low morale in the Yugoslav Army comes from the fact that Belgrade has been spared largely in the recruiting and most of the conscripts are coming from the southern part of Kosovo and in one particular town called Leskovac, which is near the Kosovo border, we have reports that men over 50 have been mobilised. We also know that in Montenegro, particularly in the city of Senice, that police have undertaken a kind of press-gang-style round-up of military-age males for conscription and many people trying to escape conscription are going to Belgrade because they feel that there is less chance of them being discovered there and conscripted because the government wants to avoid unrest in the capital city and therefore the south is being particularly victimised and I think that is one of the reasons, Jake, why the demonstrations took place in three southern cities.

Jake: The reports of the 800 came from the Democratic Party?

Jamie Shea: Yes.

Jake: Was the other separate report from earlier also from a political source inside Yugoslavia?

Jamie Shea: Yes. There are many sources now that are saying this and I think it is something - even if we don't know the full extent - which clearly is true. The Yugoslav authorities, in reacting very aggressively and making statements that they would be charging those responsible with treason even those these seemed like spontaneous outbursts rather than any organised form of protest, obviously are showing that this is happening. So yes, there is a trend towards war weariness.

Let me just give you one other example which I have seen in recent days. In Cacak a group of intellectuals have set up a non-political anti-war citizens parliament at the local cultural centre calling on Milosevic to take action to stop the NATO attacks and at the same time asking the VJ units to leave the town because of course they don't want to be subject to NATO attacks and therefore asking the VJ to please go somewhere else.

Margaret: Jamie, do you have any more information on the reports about a hospital being hit in Belgrade and the Swedish ambassador's residence having its windows blown out and on that, is this not perhaps a sensitive area to be bombing in the wake of the Chinese embassy accident?

Jamie Shea: Margaret, as you know, we have always said that no place in Yugoslavia and no military facility would be a sanctuary if that facility is connected with the Army activities in Kosovo and I can tell you that NATO aircraft targeted yesterday evening and struck a Belgrade Army barracks - I insist an Army barracks - at about 1 a.m. this morning; 7 laser-guided bombs hit the target, one laser-guided bomb failed to guide correctly and we can confirm that it struck the base of a building about 1,500 feet from the centre of the target area but reports that I saw on Tanjug today that say that NATO deliberately targeted a civilian building are completely false.

Question: (inaudible)

Jamie Shea: It was 1,500 feet away from the military barracks. I don't have more details at the moment.

John: Jamie, to follow up on that, after these reports came out, I have seen quite a few military analysts this morning saying that NATO should rethink its strategy of hitting military targets in such built-up areas and just stick to hitting troops in the field, bridges, airfields, things like that.

Jamie Shea: John, we want to stop the violence in Kosovo and the only way we can stop the violence in Kosovo is by continuing to strike at the forces on the ground and at the strategic targets elsewhere in Yugoslavia which are directly responsible for the planning and execution of those military activities. We have made it clear right from the word "go" and I repeat that no legitimate military target in Yugoslavia which is involved in this operation is going to be treated as a sanctuary, we will continue our practice of striking those military targets with great accuracy and precision and we will continue to take every conceivable measure to avoid damage to civilian property and of course harm to civilians but the air campaign continues.

Julie: Jamie, the Pentagon said yesterday that the 500 soldiers were probably reservists. Can you elaborate on that?

Jamie Shea: Julie, these people were in the field in Kosovo, they were deployed in a field battalion of the 7th Armoured Brigade in Kosovo, they deserted therefore from the front line, they weren't in a reserve call-up position somewhere else so it is clear they were serving soldiers.

I have said in these briefings that the Yugoslavs do have a problem now in mobilising manpower, people don't want to serve in the Army because of course they know what the consequences are, they have no enthusiasm for leaving their lives in Kosovo. As I said the other day, these young men prefer fatherhood to fatherland and that is true.

What I can tell you is that any middle-aged male is prohibited from leaving the country. The Yugoslav police have very stringent border checks throughout Yugoslavia including - and this has been a factor in recent days - Montenegro, to try to prevent young men going into Croatia or trying to get to Hungary or even the Republic of Serpska where we know that a couple of thousand have taken refuge and therefore I think it shows that they are having these considerable problems. As I said, in Belgrade they are being very light on conscription because they want to avoid unrest in the capital and that is why so many young men are going underground in Belgrade because they realise they have a better chance of escaping the draft there than if they stay in their villages in southern Serbia. Southern Serbia does feel particularly victimised by the heavy preponderance of drafting there as compared with the rest of the country.

Question: But Jamie, isn't there a distinction to be drawn between probable reservists and those actually enlisted in the Army? They would seem to be more likely to walk away if there were an opportunity. There seems to be a distinction between being a battle-hardened soldier and being a reservist.

Jamie Shea: The Yugoslav Army, as you know Julie, is based on conscripts. As I say, the people who are treated well are the Special Police, the MUP, they have greater loyalty to Milosevic because they get the rewards and if you like, it is a question of the MUP of Milosevic being similar to what Winston Churchill used to say: "We either hang together or we hang separately!" but the Army doesn't seem to feel quite the same degree of devotion and the fact that these 500 left and apparently, from what know, drove through check-points, threatened the MUP - "We are going or else!" - and made a very determined effort to break away was not just a form of desertion but was a kind of political demonstration in its own right and that is why we judge it significant. I am not going to pretend that the Yugoslav Army is collapsing, not at all, but this is a significant crack and I think it says a lot about the declining morale which clearly is affecting the forces in Kosovo.

One of the reasons for the demonstrations in the three cities is that for the first time coffins are coming back and this is bringing home to the Yugoslav population the fact that this is not a glorious war against terrorists but this is a very nasty campaign in which a number of Yugoslavs who clearly have no dispute with their own fellow citizens, the ethnic Albanians, and no particular interest in driving them out of their homes, are losing their lives needlessly because of something which President Milosevic could have avoided, had a hundred opportunities to avoid through the diplomatic process leading up to Rambouillet and Milosevic has never explained to his people why he said "No!" to a lot of opportunities to solve this peacefully and on terms which gave a lot to Belgrade, it was a very balanced agreement, it did not threaten the sovereignty of Yugoslavia and therefore why he rejected that and insisted instead on imposing a military solution where he himself of course is not fighting nor the members of his family let it be said but where a lot of other Yugoslavs are being forced to make increasingly heavy sacrifices.

Thank you, I will see you at 12.30 with the Secretary General.

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