Yugoslav president orders troops back to barracks Milosevic may avoid military intervention

October 05, 1998|By N.Y. TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Under NATO threat to end his punishing offensive against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia has ordered most units of his army back to their barracks and may well avoid an attack by the alliance, military observers and diplomats say.

Milosevic, who on one hand is excoriated by Washington as the scourge of Kosovo yet on the other hand is treated as key to peace in Bosnia, acted as the European Union, NATO and the United Nations prepared for a review today of possible military intervention.

Russia stepped up its warnings against such action and dispatched its foreign and defense ministers on an unusually high-level mission to see the Yugoslav president yesterday in Belgrade.

As he has so often, Milosevic appears to have bowed to foreign demands in the nick of time and yet accomplished what he wanted.

This weekend, foreign diplomatic observers in Kosovo reported that a "military stand-down" had taken place in the province, where Milosevic's forces have waged a fierce offensive against Albanian rebels. The observers said that except for segments of three brigades, most units of the Yugoslav army were "home."

The daily reports of the observer mission, made up of U.S., European Union and Russian military experts, are one of the key elements in helping Washington and European capitals decide whether Milosevic has met their demands for a cease-fire.

By putting the army back in its barracks, sending some police units out of Kosovo and ordering an end to burning and looting of villages, Milosevic may well avoid a NATO attack, diplomats here and in Washington said.

But at the same time, they acknowledge that while NATO looked the other way, he enjoyed a three-month license to overwhelm the Kosovo Liberation Army -- the rebel army fighting for independence for Kosovo and its ethnic Albanian majority -- and terrorize the rural civilian population that supports it.

His military operation created more than 250,000 refugees, whom the Clinton administration is gearing up to take care of this winter through a variety of relief organizations.

U.S. officials said they expected Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy who dealt with Milosevic in negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia, to meet with him today to discuss a political plan for Kosovo.

The heart of the disagreement in Kosovo is between Serbia, Yugoslavia's principal republic, which insists on keeping Kosovo as a province, and the ethnic Albanians there who have chafed under Milosevic's repression since he stripped the province of virtual autonomy in 1989, and who now seek independence.

The West, fearing the precedent that independence for Kosovo would set in other conflicts in the world, has been trying to mediate a middle course.

In essence, diplomats said they believed that the plan Holbrooke will present to Milosevic calls for a three-year interim period leading to a status fairly close to the pre-1989 autonomy arrangement.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said both the Yugoslav government and Kosovo's Albanian rebels have committed atrocities in seven months of conflict, but government abuses have been on a far greater scale.

Human Rights Watch said Serbian police and military "committed extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, systematically destroyed civilian property and attacked humanitarian aid workers, all of which are violations of the rules of war."

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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