NATO move unlikely today after promises by Belgrade

 

The prospect of NATO military action against Yugoslavia receded yesterday, 24 hours ahead of the alliance's deadline for Belgrade to reduce drastically its military and police presence in its province of Kosovo or face air strikes.

Senior NATO generals who held talks with President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade at the weekend secured "a number of undertakings" on the withdrawal of troops and special police forces - either out of Kosovo or to barracks - before a 10-day grace period expires this evening, a NATO official said.

The official, speaking after NATO ambassadors were briefed by the generals on the outcome of the talks, insisted that Mr Milosevic still had to implement fully his promises in order to avoid an alliance attack. "We do not trust Milosevic's words and we do not trust Milosevic's promises," he declared. "We will base our decision (about air strikes), not on words or promises, but on actions."

But the NATO official pointedly refused to put a figure on the number of troops Mr Milosevic would have to move or to identify any of the units covered by the weekend agreement, adding to growing indications that NATO is looking for a face-saving way out of the current showdown.

The British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, said it would be a "significant advance" if Mr Milosevic were to honour his commitments. But he insisted that the threat of air strikes remained real.

"The planes are still on the runway," he said. "If Milosevic does not want them to take off, then it is up to him to comply. He knows what he has got to do."

NATO has set today as the deadline for President Milosevic to comply with a UN resolution calling for him to reduce his forces in Kosovo to the level they were at in March, before he launched his offensive against rebels seeking autonomy for the province. The withdrawals that have taken place so far have encouraged some 50,000 people displaced by the conflict to return to their homes.

NATO ambassadors will decide today on the alliance's next step. A decision to order immediate action now seems unlikely. But the ambassadors could decide to maintain the activation order which gives alliance commanders the authority to order strikes

against Yugoslav targets, either for a set period or on an open-ended basis.

But having already postponed military action once, the credibility of the threat would inevitably be seriously undermined by a decision to delay again.

At the same time, the lifting of the activation order by NATO could be taken by President Milosevic as a signal that western resolve over Kosovo is weakening again.

A decision to go ahead with strikes will be no less problematic at a later date.

A 2,000-member mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is supposed to monitor the situation in Kosovo for the next year, has already begun deploying in the province. In the event of NATO bombing, there are fears that these monitors could become targets for retaliatory action or possible hostage-taking.

Military action also faces fierce opposition from Russia, which has warned it will have no part in the OSCE mission as long as the NATO threat remains in place.

During the weekend talks in Belgrade, NATO presented the authorities with a list of "priorities" concerning the return to barracks, inside or outside Kosovo, of Yugoslav army troops and the special police forces which have been blamed for much of the violence against civilians.