WASHINGTON -- Somewhere along the border with Macedonia this morning, a NATO general was slated to present Yugoslav officers with a detailed plan to remove their troops from Kosovo, paving the way for U.S. Marines and other NATO forces to enter the war-torn province as early as next week.
British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson's plan will call for strict timetables for the withdrawal of all 40,000 Serbian army and special police forces from Kosovo, officials said.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said the troops will be ordered to move from west to east along three major roads that have remained unscathed during the 72 days of airstrikes under Operation Allied Force.
"We will have benchmarks for meeting that schedule," Bacon said. "It should be relatively easy for them to move out."
The peace plan drafted by Russia and the West called for the withdrawal to be accomplished over a week's time. Yugoslav air defense systems must be moved 16 miles outside Kosovo within the first 48 hours so that allied aircraft can monitor the withdrawal without fear of being fired upon.
Bacon and NATO officials expected "difficult discussions" with the Yugoslav officers and stressed that the NATO bombing would continue until the Yugoslav troops and police begin to move out. Bombing could end tomorrow, he said, if there are no delays and if the withdrawal has begun.
Meanwhile, 2,200 U.S. Marines steaming toward the Greek port of Salonika are expected to be part of the first contingent of NATO troops to arrive in Kosovo. Officials said the Marines are expected to arrive by tomorrow and then move by truck north to Macedonia.
Bacon said if there is firm evidence of Serbian troop withdrawal, the Marines and other NATO troops could begin moving into the province next week. Besides the Marines, there are another 14,000 NATO troops in Macedonia that could be the vanguard of the 50,000-member international peacekeeping force for Kosovo.
About 7,000 U.S. troops will be included in the peacekeeping force, most likely coming from the 1st Infantry Division in Germany. Officials said it would be weeks before the entire peacekeeping force is in place.
The first allied troops will be heading into five sectors, one each for Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. The U.S. sector will be in the southeast part of Kosovo, an area that includes the city of Gnjilane.
NATO officials want to move troops in as quickly as possible to avoid development of "a vacuum" as Serbian forces withdraw. One retired U.S. Army general said it would be important to show both the Serbian forces and the refugees that allied troops can move in quickly, thus exhibiting the "flexibility, agility and might" needed to maintain control in the province.
"This is not going to be a pleasure trip, obviously," said Jamie P. Shea, the NATO spokesman. "It is going to be an extremely demanding military mission. We know that in addition to those refugees who will want to go home quickly but who need NATO's help to do so, there are over a half a million internally displaced people inside Kosovo who are also going to be needing immediate help and assistance."
One immediate problem, said NATO and U.S. officials, will be removing land mines that pepper Kosovo, particularly along the roads into the province.
Under the peace plan, some Serbian troops are required to return and help clear the mines. In addition, the Marines will have the necessary equipment to remove mines.
"De-mining's obviously going to be an issue and take some time," said one NATO officer. At the same time, roads and bridges will have to be rebuilt by combat engineers.
A question among military officials is whether the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been pressing for independence from Yugoslavia, will eventually "demilitarize," as called for under the peace plan.
Bacon said there has been no contact with leaders of the KLA, which has gained strength and acquired advanced weaponry over the past several weeks and now has about 17,000 fighters.
Bacon and other officials expected the KLA to abide by the peace agreement, saying it's in the interests of the rebel forces to see the Serbs withdraw and the refugees return.
While the peace plan calls for autonomy for the Kosovars, it appears to stop short of the agreement in Rambouillet, France, which the KLA agreed to earlier this year but which Milosevic rejected.
That plan called for autonomy for three years and then an international meeting on the final status of the province, taking into account "the will of the people."
A KLA spokesman, Shinasi Rama, has said the rebel force would not accept Yugoslav sovereignty over the province, a key part of the peace plan. And KLA members in Albania told reporters they do not plan on giving up their arms.
"Traditionally, guerrilla armies are harder to deal with," said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who headed the 1st Armored Division in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996.