BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Yugoslavia urged refugees to return home yesterday, declaring "peace has prevailed in Kosovo" and saying its 14-month war against ethnic Albanian separatists was over. But Western officials feared those same refugees would be used as human shields against NATO attacks.
As the United States pledged that NATO will press ahead with the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, a former Cypriot president arrived in Belgrade to try to win freedom for three captured U.S. soldiers. His task could prove difficult: A hard-line Serbian vice premier ruled out any release as long as the NATO bombardment continued.
On the 16th day of the U.S.-led air assault, hopes for the prisoners' release were mixed with concern over thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees whose fate was unknown a day after Yugoslavia sealed off its borders and stopped their flight out of Kosovo.
The Yugoslav government, which says it is observing a unilateral cease-fire in Kosovo since Tuesday for Orthodox Easter, claimed the refugees were voluntarily heading back to their homes in the province.
As night fell yesterday, several thousand people chanting "Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!" gathered on two major bridges in Belgrade and the remaining Danube River bridge in the city of Novi Sad to serve as volunteer "human shields" against NATO attacks.
Shortly after 10 p.m., air-raid sirens sounded in Belgrade.
Spyros Kyprianou, currently the speaker of the Cypriot parliament, said he planned to meet Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic today and that the Americans might be freed during the long Orthodox Easter weekend. He called on NATO to reciprocate with a cease-fire over the holiday, something the alliance has refused.
Vice Premier Vojislav Seselj, leader of the influential Serbian Radical Party, told reporters yesterday that releasing the Americans was "out of the question."
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said only an unconditional release would be acceptable. "Any attempt to use this as a bargaining chip is both illegal and immoral," he said.
President Clinton insisted that NATO can still win in Kosovo without sending in ground troops, and expressed hope yesterday that the three servicemen would be freed.
"We would like to see the servicemen released because they never should have been detained in the first place," Clinton said during a news conference with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
Vice President Al Gore, campaigning in Iowa, said the bombing would continue, adding "Milosevic knows what he has to do to bring this to a conclusion."
Although NATO arranged for safe passage for Kyprianou's flight, alliance warplanes and missiles struck before dawn yesterday in Belgrade and against government troops in Kosovo.
NATO also warned that Yugoslavia's state-run radio and television network could be one of its next targets.
"It has filled the airwaves with hate and with lies over the years and especially now. It is therefore a legitimate target," Air Commodore David Wilby told reporters at NATO headquarters.
Alliance spokesman Jamie Shea said some Yugoslav television facilities already have been hit.
Air Marshal Sir John Day said NATO forces would "take every precaution" to make sure they avoid targets where refugees may be used as human shields.
"[Still], at the end of the day, the responsibility is Milosevic's," he said.
In a statement yesterday, Milosevic's government claimed that "peace has prevailed in Kosovo," and said its security forces had "ended the offensive, anti-terrorist activities" against the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been fighting for independence. …