Kosovo peace `within reach' After 72 days and nights of war, Milosevic agrees to NATO terms `The next 24 hours will be critical' Allies vow to continue airstrikes until Kosovo pullout is verified

War In Yugoslavia

June 04, 1999|By Bill Glauber and Jonathan Weisman | Bill Glauber and Jonathan Weisman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated yesterday to most NATO conditions for an end to the bombing of his country, and officials in Washington said that NATO and Yugoslav military delegations could meet as early as today to begin planning the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo.

After 72 days and nights of NATO airstrikes that have left his country devastated and his people weary and terrified, Milosevic caved in to demands brought by envoys from Europe and Russia. The most important of these was an agreement to allow NATO troops to form the core of a peacekeeping force that is to ease the return of up to 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo.

But, mindful that Milosevic has reneged on past agreements, NATO leaders vowed to press on with the air campaign until there is a verifiable withdrawal of Serbian military, paramilitary and police units from Kosovo.

In Washington, President Clinton said he welcomed the news of the deal but added that "based on past experience, we must also be cautious."

Also sounding a note of caution was Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the European envoy who presented the plan to Milosevic along with Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

"Bear with me if I'm not jumping with enthusiasm, but there is a lot of hard work to be done," Ahtisaari said in Cologne, Germany, after briefing European leaders.

"The first step in building peace has been made," Ahtisaari said, and suspension of the bombing could occur "in a very few days."

After meeting yesterday with Clinton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced that a military delegation will meet with Yugoslav counterparts "in the next several days" to hammer out the logistics of a Serbian pullout and the deployment of 50,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo.

A White House national security aide said last night that those first military contacts could come as soon as today, with a Serbian pullout beginning almost immediately thereafter.

"That will be the first sign if he's serious," the aide said of Milosevic. "The next 24 hours will be critical."

U.S. and European officials scrambled last night to prepare a resolution for a United Nations Security Council vote approving the arrangements hammered out by Ahtisaari, Chernomyrdin and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

`A political breakthrough'

"We have reached a political breakthrough, peace is within reach and we are not going to let it slip through our fingers," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Authorities in Belgrade sought to put the best light on the document that could end the Kosovo conflict. They emphasized that the agreement recognizes Yugoslavia's "territorial sovereignty and integrity," and underscored the role the United Nations would take in establishing the peace.

"We are completely ready to fulfill all obligations," said Vuk Draskovic, formerly Yugoslavia's deputy premier. "We need to build up the reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians with the full support of U.N. peacekeepers."

Serbian outrage

Others, however, were outraged that Yugoslavia had endured so much destruction only to taste bitter defeat.

"It is a capitulation," said Dragan Vesilinov, a Serbian member of parliament. "Many people will ask, `Why was this war needed?' "

Vojislav Seselj, Serbia's deputy premier, was outraged by the deal and led his Serb Radical Party in opposition to the agreement and withdrew his support for Milosevic's government.

"We voted against this deal because we believe that the withdrawal of our troops from Kosovo amid NATO criminal bombardment is unacceptable," he said.

Seselj added that his advice for NATO peacekeepers entering Kosovo would be to stay away.

"They won't feel secure down there," he said.

In many ways, Yugoslavia accepted the core of the provisions contained in the settlement brokered in Rambouillet, France, in March. That attempt to bridge political differences between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority went nowhere when it was rejected by Serbia, which objected to foreign troops in its historic and religious heartland.

Parliament backs deal

But yesterday morning, the Yugoslav parliament voted 136-74 to accept the agreement after a closed-door debate that lasted less than two hours.

The proposals seek to smooth over the war's traumas while providing a new start for Kosovo.

All Serbian troops -- believed to number about 40,000 -- must leave Kosovo under a fast and precise time schedule that is to include the withdrawal of air defenses. Eventually, hundreds of Serbian soldiers may return to fulfill such tasks as helping with mine clearance, guarding historic sites and securing border crossings.

Entering the province will be an international peacekeeping force under a U.N. mandate with a unified command and with NATO at its core. Russian troops will make up part of the force.

NATO has said its force will have 47,900 troops, including 7,000 U.S. soldiers.

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