Allies reportedly soften demand on pullback by Serbian troops

NATO may halt bombing without major withdrawal

War In Yugoslavia

May 15, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Softening one of their key conditions for ending the war in Kosovo, the United States and its NATO allies no longer are insisting that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdraw a substantial number of his troops from the province before NATO halts its air attacks.

NATO officials had consistently said there could be no cease-fire until there is "verifiable" evidence of a major Serbian pullback. But in interviews yesterday, a Clinton administration official and diplomats from two other NATO countries said the alliance has moderated its position because it is eager to patch up differences with Russia and China, which have demanded an end to the bombing as a precursor to talks with Milosevic.

`Strong and positive'

"We want a strong and positive statement out of the Serbian government to coincide with any movement of troops," said the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The official said NATO's willingness to bend also reflects a hard political calculation that the alliance cannot hold together forever and NATO must show some flexibility to end the war.

However, even such a modest concession runs the risk of convincing Milosevic that time, Russia, China and NATO politics all are on his side, and that he can get an even better bargain by remaining firm.

"The more this campaign lasts, the more difficult it will be to keep the alliance together," said a diplomat of a NATO country. "We would like this to end as soon as possible."

Little progress seen

Despite NATO's readiness to stop the bombing while a substantial number of Serbian forces remain in Kosovo, State Department officials told a group of U.S. congressional leaders in a classified briefing late this week that diplomatic efforts "have not made any substantial progress" in recent days, according to a participant. U.S. officials and Western diplomats believe there's little chance for a deal soon.

Russia, still a potential deal maker, and NATO remain far apart on the composition and control of an international peacemaking force that would protect the approximately 1.5 million ethnic Albanian refugees.

Serbian troops have driven the Kosovars from their homes in the largest "ethnic cleansing" campaign in Europe since World War II.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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