Ivanov hails Russia's role in warding off NATO action


President Boris Yeltsin, back in the Kremlin yesterday in defiance of his doctors' orders, welcomed the last-ditch deal on Kosovo that averted the threat of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia.

Mr Yeltsin, who is suffering from bronchitis, was briefed by the Prime Minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, on the Kosovo crisis. "The President responded approvingly to the latest turn of events," Mr Primakov told reporters after the Kremlin meeting.

"This is an alternative to air strikes against Kosovo," Mr Primakov said, adding that Mr Yeltsin had ordered all relevant Russian ministries to redouble their efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

The Foreign Minister, Mr Igor Ivanov, earlier hailed Russia's rare political consensus over Kosovo and said the unanimity of President, government and parliament had helped to ward off the NATO strikes on Yugoslavia. "This unity has helped us to remove the threat of strikes against Yugoslavia and to secure a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo crisis," he told the Duma.

Mr Ivanov is to attend a meeting of the six-nation Contact Group on Yugoslavia in Paris today. The meeting will discuss the deal brokered by the US envoy.

Mr Ivanov yesterday repeated Russia's readiness to participate fully in the 2,000-strong mission of observers due to be deployed in Kosovo by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Mr Primakov said he believed the risk of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia had been averted. "There will be no strikes over the Kosovo issue . . . but we should still knock on wood," he told Russia's Federation Council, the upper house.

The Duma was expected to vote later on a draft resolution condemning NATO's threat to use force in the Balkans and praising the Russian government's efforts to seal a diplomatic solution of the crisis. The house disregarded Mr Ivanov's request that it postpone its resolution by several days to allow the situation in Yugoslavia to become clearer.

The Itar-Tass news agency said a delegation of deputies had set off for Belgrade yesterday to underline Moscow's solidarity with the Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, after receiving NATO permission to make the flight.

On Tuesday, the US Balkan envoy, Mr Richard Holbrooke, reached a deal with Mr Milosevic that would allow international monitoring of Belgrade's compliance with UN resolutions calling for an end to Serb action against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo province.

Television pictures released yesterday by the Kremlin showed a relatively robust President Yeltsin, smiling and shaking hands with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister, Mr Igor Sergeyev.

Commenting on the press reaction to his early return from a trip to central Asia on Monday, Mr Yeltsin said: "You don't even let me sneeze! Can you see how the President's health is? Well, here I am!"

Mr Primakov said he found Mr Yeltsin in "excellent form". "When we told him he should listen to doctors and stay in bed he dismissed it with a wave of his hand," he told reporters.

As newspapers continued what has now become a vociferous debate over just how bad the President's health is, Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Mr Dmitry Yakushkin, told the Itar-Tass news agency that the President still had a slight fever.