Milosevic Folded as Allies Neared Plan for Invasion

WASHINGTON -- Early on the morning of May 27, German police blocked every autobahn ramp and side street along the route from the Cologne airport to the Bristol Hotel in Bonn. Even the few people who happened to be up at 3 a.m. could not possibly catch a glimpse of the man inside the motorcade whizzing by.

The war over Kosovo had been dragging on for nine weeks, and Defense Secretary William Cohen had flown in secretly to discuss a possible NATO invasion of Yugoslavia. The meeting also brought together the defense ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. After 6 1/2 hours of debate, the five ministers reached a momentous conclusion: Their governments must decide whether to assemble ground troops, and they must make the choice within days.

From the start of the 78-day air war in the Balkans, U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly ruled out a ground campaign. Nevertheless, secret preparations for an invasion of Kosovo were extensive, and progressed much further than has been previously disclosed.

Relying in part on a clandestine relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army, NATO's leadership was probing Yugoslav defenses. NATO engineers were reinforcing a vital roadway for use in an armored thrust. Allied capitals were considering commitments of troops - including nearly half of Britain's standing army - when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic unexpectedly capitulated.

Clinton and the leaders of NATO's other member states never gave the final political go-ahead for an invasion. But Milosevic may have believed otherwise.

Despite public denials throughout the war, the CIA worked closely with the KLA to glean intelligence about the disposition of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo. When the ethnic Albanian rebels launched a major offensive in late May - with NATO's full prior knowledge and active air support - Milosevic and his generals seem to have concluded that NATO was on the brink of an attack. That, NATO commanders now believe, was an important factor in the Yugoslav leader's sudden retreat.

"I think President Milosevic had plenty of intelligence and all of the indicators that would have made him conclude that we were going in on the ground," General Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe, said at a Washington research center in September.