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Kosovo Agreement Could Stave Off NATO Airstrikes

Balkans: Yugoslav president accedes to troop pullback from province along with international verification. Allies vote for reprisal after four days if he fails to comply.


PARIS — Facing imminent attack from NATO's bombers, fighters and cruise missiles, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to withdraw troops from violence-racked Kosovo province and allow wide-ranging international verification in a last-minute compromise that could end the threat of airstrikes.

But the U.S.-led military alliance, wary of Milosevic, intensified the pressure early today, authorizing the first airstrikes in as little as four days if he does not follow through.

"Balkan graveyards are filled with President Milosevic's broken promises," President Clinton told reporters in New York.

U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who held what had originally seemed to be last-chance talks in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, with Milosevic, flew to Brussels on Monday evening to report to NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and ambassadors from the 16 member countries of the Western alliance.

According to NATO sources, Holbrooke said a forum originally founded to narrow the East-West divide of the Cold War--the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--will be allowed by Milosevic to deploy 2,000 observers in Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian enclave inside Yugoslavia's republic of Serbia, to ensure that the minority's rights are safeguarded.

Monitoring will be carried out by "a robust, on-the-ground and in-the-air verification system," Clinton said.

"We will remain ready to take military action if Mr. Milosevic fails to make good on his commitments this time," the president said.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said that no U.S. combat forces will be involved in the monitoring of compliance but that some U.S. civilians may be members of the verification force carrying out what Clinton said would be "an intrusive, international inspection."

If Milosevic follows through, the deal would represent a major eleventh-hour concession by Yugoslavia to the United States and its allies, who are pressing for an end to the brutal crackdown that Milosevic launched in February against the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

At least 270,000 people in Kosovo have fled their homes, and hundreds of people have been killed.

On Sept. 23, a U.N. Security Council resolution demanded the Yugoslav government declare an immediate cease-fire, withdraw its forces and enter a political dialogue with the ethnic minority Albanians.

Clinton announced that Milosevic had agreed to abide by that resolution.

On Monday night, Holbrooke refused to reveal details of his negotiations to reporters but said he would be returning to the talks today in Belgrade, which is also the capital of Serbia. It was unclear exactly what needed to be worked out yet with Milosevic. Holbrooke also met briefly with Bronislaw Geremek, Polish foreign minister and chairman of the OSCE.

"We think we've had some movement from Belgrade in recent days and hours, and we're going to return there to see if we can build on that," Holbrooke said as he left for Belgrade. "We're going right now . . . directly to the airport."

Russian news agencies quoted Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev as saying that Milosevic offered to allow 1,500 observers into Kosovo and that Russia, a traditional friend and ally of Yugoslavia, intended to participate.

Diplomatic sources in Brussels said Milosevic also was reportedly ready to make a "unilateral declaration" about the status of Kosovo.

A senior White House official said that Holbrooke had achieved some important progress during his meeting with Milosevic but that sticking points remained. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States still wanted NATO to tighten the squeeze on the Yugoslav leader by formally transferring command of the air flotilla assembled over the past days to the ranking U.S. general in Europe.

Such an "activation order," one NATO official explained, would allow Wesley Clark, a four-star American general who is supreme allied commander in Europe, to independently commence air raids.

"The pistol is on Slobodan Milosevic's temple. It's going to be loaded and the safety taken off," a diplomat told Agence France-Presse in Brussels.

After hearing Holbrooke, the ambassadors from the NATO member countries took a brief recess, then reconvened early this morning to approve the activation order, which could lead to airstrikes in 96 hours, or four days.

Sources in NATO said Holbrooke himself asked for the four-day delay, apparently to give himself and Milosevic time to negotiate further--but also to force the pace.

To bring Milosevic to heel, the United States has contributed 260 aircraft, two-thirds of the force earmarked for the strikes. They include around 130 fighters, two long-range B-2 Stealth bombers, a dozen F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers, six B-52s in England, F-15 and F-16 fighters based in Italy and Germany, as well as F-14s aboard the aircraft carrier Eisenhower in the Mediterranean.

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