Belgrade claims Kosovo pullback

But U.S., NATO see no evidence forces are leaving province

War In Yugoslavia

May 11, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Yugoslavia announced yesterday a partial withdrawal of its troops from Kosovo. But U.S. and NATO officials said they saw no evidence that troops were leaving or that Belgrade had agreed to NATO's other conditions for halting the 7-week-old bombing campaign.

Belgrade's state news agency said the withdrawal of some army and police units was ordered late Sunday because the Yugoslav military had completed its actions against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

Some analysts here and in Belgrade saw the move as an effort by President Slobodan Milosevic to begin softening up Yugoslav public opinion to prepare for concessions to NATO. But U.S. and NATO officials also noted that Milosevic has a history of announcing concessions without following through.

"Milosevic is the master of the pullback," a NATO diplomat said, citing previous false starts by the Yugoslav leader in October.

Milosevic, the NATO diplomat said, might be withdrawing battle-weary troops, merely to substitute elite forces in the fight against the KLA.

Still, the announcement from Belgrade produced a split reaction from Washington, reflecting conflicting pressures on the Clinton administration to pursue a diplomatic solution and to use relentless bombing to force a reversal of Milosevic's brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

Asked his reaction, President Clinton said, "Well, I'm encouraged by any good word, but I think that the conditions that we set out are the minimal ones to make this work."

Clinton said that given the suffering of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians -- hundreds of thousands driven out, and "many, many killed" -- the Yugoslav announcement would not be enough to bring the refugees back into Kosovo, a key Western goal.

"So I think we have to do better," the president said. "But any -- any little daylight, any little progress is -- it's better than it was the day before. We just have to bear down and keep working, and we'll work through it.

"But I think that the forces have got to be withdrawn, and there has to be an international security force there or otherwise [the refugees] won't come home, and that's the important thing."

This was much softer in tone than the reaction from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright just two hours earlier: "I have just heard a report that he was going to withdraw half his forces from Kosovo," she said, referring to Milosevic. "If there ever was a definition of a half-measure, that is it."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who generally reflects the most hawkish viewpoint in the administration, said Milosevic would have to agree to all of NATO's conditions, including a full withdrawal of troops from Kosovo and the acceptance of an armed international security force to guarantee the safe return of refugees.

"So we will not suspend the air campaign for a partial withdrawal," Rubin said. "We will only suspend it after there's an agreement to a full withdrawal, with part of it verified and implemented. But that full withdrawal has to be on a very tight schedule so that when we have a partial withdrawal, you will really know that it is part of a full withdrawal and not simply some sort of quarter-measure or something to that effect."

About 40,000 Yugoslav soldiers and special police are believed to have been sent into Kosovo to defeat the KLA and to expel ethnic Albanians. Milosevic, who wants to keep Yugoslav control over Kosovo, a province of Serbia, has insisted that 11,000 Serbian troops stay in Kosovo even after a peace accord.

Belgrade's announcement yesterday said the size of the Serbian force in Kosovo would be reduced to peacetime levels "when an agreement with the United Nations is reached regarding the deployment of a U.N. mission in Kosovo."

While the statement from Belgrade did not in itself offer much hope for an early end to the war, diplomatic efforts nevertheless picked up yesterday.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott prepared to fly to Moscow last night to work on an endgame formula acceptable to the NATO alliance and Russia. Last week, Russia signed on to a broad peace plan with other members of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. But the plan merely papered over major disagreements between the West and Moscow.

The Clinton administration wants the peace plan to be enforced by a NATO-led military operation modeled after the well-armed peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Russia, which would participate, opposes NATO control of the operation.

The two sides also need to work out how a separate civilian administration of the province would operate.

Moscow's special envoy for the Balkans, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, has adopted the role of shuttle diplomat between the West and Belgrade. Yesterday, however, he made a detour to Beijing, in what one U.S. official here saw as a Sino-Russian effort to weaken NATO in the wake of the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

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