Envoys carry peace plan

President of Finland, Chernomyrdin bear detailed NATO terms

Mission to Milosevic

Accepting proposal could end bombing, lead to occupation

June 02, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Envoys from the European Union and Russia will travel to Belgrade today with a detailed NATO proposal to halt its bombing in exchange for a pullout of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and acceptance of the alliance's conditions for ending the war.

The visit, by President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Viktor S. Chernomyrdin of Russia, marks the most serious step toward a diplomatic solution to the conflict since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24.

Until now, Chernomyrdin, Moscow's special envoy to the Balkans, has been the sole mediator between the West and Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic, and he has made no secret of his unhappiness with the NATO bombing campaign.

Ahtisaari, while neutral, is seen as closer to NATO.

"Let's hope that we are at a turning point," Lamberto Dini, Italy's foreign minister, said during a visit to the State Department yesterday.

Prospects for an end to the war improved over the weekend after Milosevic accepted the conditions for a peaceful solution proposed several weeks ago by the Group of Eight, the seven leading industrial nations plus Russia.

His shift followed intensified NATO bombing -- which has brought more widespread civilian death and suffering -- and an indictment of Milosevic for war crimes charges that deepened his international isolation.

But Milosevic has still not accepted NATO's conditions for a bombing halt, which are tougher than the vague terms agreed to by the G-8.

NATO insists that an armed international force, with NATO troops "at its core," enter Kosovo to guarantee the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin held talks in Bonn yesterday with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to clarify their understanding of NATO's demands.

U.S. officials hoped that the two men would agree to work from the same "script" in Belgrade. But they were unable to secure a close enough agreement for Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin to go to Belgrade as a team.

Nevertheless, the two are not expected to undercut each other.

The significance of Ahtisaari's mission is that he will be able to spell out in detail what NATO's conditions require.

The alliance is prepared to halt the bombing once Milosevic publicly accepts the terms and begins a "visible and verifiable" withdrawal of the Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces from Kosovo.

One official said it should be clear in a few days whether the Serbs have begun a serious withdrawal.

A decision on stopping the bombing would be made by the NATO commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, and Secretary-General Javier Solana in consultation with important allied countries.

Two issues that still divide NATO and Russia are the number of Serbian troops that will be allowed back into Kosovo once a cease-fire takes hold and the makeup of the international force.

The United States and its allies are willing to let Serbs patrol so-called patrimonial sites -- those with religious or Serbian nationalist importance, and to maintain a symbolic presence along the border. They will also be called upon to help with de-mining operations, an official said.

But one State Department official likened the Serbs' prospective role to that of park rangers.

The Serbs would not, for example, have authority to decide which of the ethnic Albanian refugees would be allowed back into Kosovo, officials said.

Russia has called for the Serbs to be allowed a much larger and more powerful presence.

Russia also objects to NATO's being in command of the international force, a key U.S. demand.

In an apparent effort to split the alliance, Russia also doesn't want any of the countries that have participated in the bombing of Yugoslavia to be included.

"By being at the core, that means there must be a command and control structure that is NATO's in charge of any peacekeeping operation," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday.

Nevertheless, Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, indicated yesterday that Russia would be willing to participate in the international force.

NATO is planning to put as many as 50,000 armed troops in a peacekeeping force.

Military officials from more than 30 nations met in Belgium yesterday to draw up plans for the security force.

Meanwhile yesterday, officials said relief planes piloted by a Moldovan crew would begin dropping leaflets over Kosovo early today, to notify ethnic Albanians that food packages would be airdropped starting tomorrow.

The food is intended for thousands of ethnic Albanians hiding in the mountains and valleys of Kosovo, some of them close to death from malnutrition.

The airdrops are sponsored by the International Rescue Committee. But they are being paid for largely by the United States and coordinated by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Serbs have warned that the flights, by low-flying, twin-engine turboprop planes, are entering dangerous territory, indicating that they face the possibility of being shot down.

Pentagon officials had considered the flights too risky, but top officials reluctantly agreed to them.

"They have coordinated with NATO, and they will coordinate," Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday.

"But NATO will continue its air campaign. On the days that these airdrops are made, we will do our best to de-conflict NATO air operations with the airdrops."

Bacon said NATO would not offer any type of air cover or other protection for the humanitarian flights.

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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