WASHINGTON -- President Slobodan Milosevic told a visiting Russian envoy yesterday that he could accept the deployment of a United Nations-led "international presence" in Kosovo. But the Yugoslav leader's restrictions on that force appeared to deflate what might have been a breakthrough in the month-long air war over Serbia.
Within hours, NATO forces struck again, knocking Serbian television's main network off the air with a hit on its downtown Belgrade headquarters.
Moscow's special envoy to the Balkans, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, emerged from a daylong meeting with Milosevic in Belgrade to tell reporters, "We considered the possibility of an international presence led by the U.N. in which Russia would take part. Those are the basic principles we agreed upon."
Chernomyrdin also said the two had "considered conditions for the return of the refugees" and for allowing international aid agencies into Kosovo, where hundreds of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians might be without food and shelter.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a statement, said "the news out of Belgrade is encouraging," though he said he needed to review the details.
White House officials said there might be less to the offer than they first had hoped. President Clinton initially greeted it positively but gingerly, calling it "the first acknowledgment by Mr. Milosevic that there will have to be a security force there."
"If there is an offer for a genuine security force, that's the first time that Mr. Milosevic has ever done that, and that represents, I suppose, some step forward," Clinton said in the Rose Garden after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana.
But administration aides almost immediately turned skeptical. Reports from Belgrade last night indicated that the "international presence" envisioned by Milosevic would not be armed and would not include any NATO nations participating in the air strikes.
Milosevic also said the force could be deployed only if the NATO bombing is halted and allied troops withdraw from Yugoslavia's borders.
White House officials dismissed such conditions, and a NATO diplomat suggested that Clinton might have reacted too hastily.
But, the diplomat added, "The president reacted on the short hop on this and did a pretty good job."
A few hours after Clinton's initial reaction, White House officials adopted a harder line, saying the bombing would continue until Milosevic met all four alliance objectives -- the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo; the deployment of an armed international security force; the return of all refugees; and the granting of significant autonomy to the province.
Milosevic's offer "is one of four conditions, and we say we need all four before the bombing stops," a senior administration official said.
To underscore that, NATO warplanes followed up a dramatic attack on one of Milosevic's personal residences in the morning with strikes all day in what the Yugoslav Tanjug news agency called the fiercest daytime strikes yet. Last night, bombs struck three Serb television relays and a railway bridge over the Ibar River in central Serbia.
Serb media reported that NATO jets pounded an area around the southern town of Vranje with 40 missiles over two hours. NATO also struck the town of Uzice, 75 miles southeast of Belgrade.
TV headquarters hit
Then, in the middle of the night, a missile struck Serbian TV headquarters in Belgrade, knocking its three channels off the air.
NATO has warned that Serb TV was a legitimate target because it was broadcasting propaganda.
International news organizations relied on the Serb facilities for their transmissions.
Milosevic's offer yesterday came at a delicate time, as leaders gathered in Washington for NATO's 50th-anniversary summit. NATO officials had been expecting him to take some action to try to divide the alliance, and they said an offer of a toothless "international presence" might aim to do just that.
"That's what we all feared -- an initiative by Milosevic right before the summit to try to split the alliance," said a European diplomat.
Said the NATO diplomat: "I can predict that there will be something out of Belgrade every day between now and Monday," when the summit concludes.
The bombing took on particularly personal overtones after the pre-dawn strike yesterday that gutted Milosevic's home in an affluent neighborhood of Belgrade. Goran Matic, a high-level Yugoslav official, denounced the attack as "an assassination attempt on the president" and an "organized terrorist criminal act."
Clinton denied that the bombing was an attempt on Milosevic's life, and his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said NATO forces understood correctly that the Serb leader was not at the house when it was struck.
But, Clinton said, the house was considered "a command-and-control" facility and thus a legitimate military target.