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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

NATO Unswayed by Yugoslavia's Pullout Order

Balkans: Belgrade announces partial military withdrawal from Kosovo, but there are no signs of a mass exit from the province. Allies say bombing will continue.

May 11, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The government here announced a partial withdrawal of military and police forces from Kosovo on Monday, but there was no immediate evidence in the Serbian province of any large-scale pullout, and NATO said its bombing campaign will continue until all its conditions for a peace settlement are met.

The pullout order, which the army said it issued Sunday night, was the clearest sign yet that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is willing to retreat from a conflict that has subjected his country to 48 days of intense bombardment. Over the past week, Yugoslavia's official media have been preparing public opinion for a compromise with the West.

Bombing continued Monday as warplanes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made daylight strikes on several towns in central and western Serbia, killing four civilians and damaging a factory in Cacak, 90 miles south of Belgrade.

U.S. and NATO officials also were trying to mend relations with China after an attack early Saturday in which the alliance mistakenly struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Angry demonstrations in Beijing appeared to lose some of their passion. China suspended human rights talks and high-level military exchanges, but for the first time Monday held out the possibility of a diplomatic solution to its dispute with the United States if Washington issues an apology for the attack, launches an investigation and punishes those responsible. In Shanghai, local officials also sought to reassure U.S. businesses that they would be safe.

Official Chinese media quoted President Jiang Zemin as saying that continued NATO bombing would make it impossible for the U.N. Security Council to discuss any plan to solve the Kosovo crisis.

Monday's announcement in Belgrade repeated the Yugoslav army's assertion that the guerrilla war was over. It did not say how many troops were being pulled out but said forces in Kosovo would be reduced to a "peacetime level" as soon as agreement is reached on a U.N.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

In Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Yugoslavia's announcement of a partial withdrawal from Kosovo was much too little to meet NATO's conditions for a pause in the bombing.

She said NATO would consider a pause before all Yugoslav troops are out of Kosovo but insisted that there must be a "demonstrable, verifiable [start on] withdrawal of forces."

But NATO's tough response pointed to a deadlock, with any withdrawal effort likely to be blocked or delayed by ongoing allied airstrikes on Kosovo's roads and bridges.

In Russia, which has been attempting to mediate in the conflict, the Foreign Ministry was more positive, terming Yugoslavia's announcement a "serious step in the right direction." A Russian envoy pressed a globe-trotting effort to end the conflict, and Milosevic told a visiting former U.N. envoy Monday that he was open to talks on a vague peace proposal outlined Thursday by seven Western powers and Russia--the Group of 8.

The plan might allow some of Milosevic's troops to remain in the embattled province alongside a U.N.-led peacekeeping force. Milosevic has insisted on keeping 11,000 troops in Kosovo out of the 100,000 he says were deployed there late last month to fight armed ethnic Albanian separatists.

With details of the peace plan still to be worked out, Milosevic continued to face tough, long-standing NATO demands for an end to his violent crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo--a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia.

More refugees streamed across the border into Albania on Monday, saying they had been flushed out of hiding in woods and mountains by Serbian forces who threatened to kill them if they didn't flee.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said Monday that the bombing will continue until Milosevic meets all the alliance's demands in Kosovo, including a total withdrawal of his troops and the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees under armed international protection.

Yugoslav officers in Kosovo insisted that they had to move carefully in their withdrawal to cut the risk of being bombed. Destroyed bridges and continued NATO airstrikes were causing their troops "great difficulty" in pulling out, said a military officer in Pristina, the provincial capital, who spoke on condition he not be identified.

Without a pause in the bombing, the army's troops and heavy vehicles cannot travel in convoys for fear of becoming easy targets for NATO warplanes, the officer said.

The army's announcement did not say that withdrawal depended on a bombing halt. But Miroslav Lazanski, Belgrade's leading military correspondent, said the pullout could not proceed without one.

"It all depends on how NATO behaves in the next 24 hours," said Lazanski, who writes for the newspaper Vecernje Novosti. "Everything will collapse if NATO keeps bombing."

Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin was trying to build momentum into diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

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