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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Milosevic Said to OK Presence of NATO Force

Yugoslavia: Concession to allow Western troops as part of a Kosovo peacekeeping unit is called 'not good enough' by U.S. spokesman. France, Germany say move is potentially important.

May 30, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in a new retreat after 9 1/2 weeks of allied bombing, has offered to give NATO commanders and troops a limited peacekeeping role in Kosovo, Russian and Yugoslav media said Saturday.

Milosevic reportedly made the concession in talks here Friday with Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, producing the first detailed plan for a peacekeeping force that Belgrade would accept. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

Differences over the makeup of a peacekeeping mission that would escort home hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians purged from the province by Milosevic's troops have been a major obstacle to a settlement.

The Yugoslav offer fell short of the 19-nation Western alliance's condition that any peacekeeping forces come exclusively under its command. "Close is not good enough," said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, insisting that NATO's demands are not negotiable.

But European leaders said Friday's talks marked an advance. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for an urgent meeting of the Group of 8--the seven major industrial powers and Russia--to assess Yugoslavia's new position. Schroeder said he was "more hopeful about a political settlement than a few days ago."

In Brussels, however, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, called Milosevic's concession a "thirst for a bombing pause" and said the strikes will continue until the Yugoslav leader capitulates. And British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said: "This shift by Milosevic shows that the pressure is now beginning to tell on him."

Meanwhile, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization waged a 67th day of punishing airstrikes against Yugoslavia, a military court in Belgrade convicted two Australians and a Yugoslav working for the humanitarian agency CARE on charges of spying for the alliance and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from four to 12 years.

In Washington, the Pentagon ordered 68 more warplanes to the Balkans. Their arrival will bring NATO's force in the conflict to nearly 1,100 aircraft, compared with fewer than 400 when the air war began March 24.

NATO is trying to halt a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where the Yugoslav army has been fighting separatist rebels. Milosevic and four top aides were indicted last week by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges of murder, mass deportation and other atrocities against civilians there.

U.N. officials say about 1 million people, or half the prewar population of a province the size of Los Angeles County, have left Kosovo in the last 15 months. The exodus continued Saturday as 250 Kosovo men released from a Serbian prison crossed into Albania.

The alliance wants a peacekeeping force strong enough to guarantee the safe return of refugees and the political autonomy that Milosevic is now promising for Kosovo.

Milosevic initially rejected armed peacekeepers from any NATO country but has repeatedly backtracked. In recent weeks, he has said that the mission could bear light defensive weapons and include soldiers from the nine NATO nations whose planes are not bombing his country.

His latest and most detailed position emerged from a proposal brought by Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister who says he is trying to bridge the gap between Yugoslavia and NATO. U.S. officials insisted that Chernomyrdin was not authorized to negotiate on NATO's behalf or broker a deal but said they were eager to see the results.

The peacekeeping plan was hammered out Friday in the presence of Yugoslavia's army high command. It was leaked by a Russian official to the Itar-Tass news agency in Moscow on Saturday, picked up by Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency and topped the evening news on state-run television in Belgrade.

Under the plan:

* Yugoslavia would "reduce" its forces in Kosovo and permit overflights by NATO and Russian reconnaissance planes to verify the troop withdrawals.

* A military officer from a neutral country would lead the peacekeeping force, aided by a chief of staff from a NATO country not involved in the bombing. "Elements of NATO's control system," the report said, could be incorporated into the mission's operational command, but the force would answer to the U.N. Security Council.

* Troops from neutral countries, including Russia and other former Soviet republics, would escort ethnic Albanian refugees home and keep peace inside Kosovo, while troops from NATO countries not involved in the bombing would patrol Kosovo's "border areas." The report did not define the depth of the border strip.

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