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Milosevic May Be Eyeing NATO Talks

April 7, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia _ A unilateral cease-fire, a possible willingness to release three captured U.S. soldiers. President Slobodan Milosevic may be looking for a way out in his confrontation with NATO over Kosovo.

And there are signs the people of Serbia may welcome a compromise with the enemy after two weeks of air strikes.

``Clearly (Milosevic) miscalculated his options and realizes that this has been going on too long,″ Belgrade journalist Dusan Radulovic said.

In particular, the cease-fire, announced Tuesday, may be an attempt by the Yugoslav leader to head off any effort by the NATO allies to send in ground troops to bring an end to the conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

``Milosevic is fast approaching a point where getting some kind of negotiations are in his interest in order to halt the bombings and to forestall the decision to introduce ground forces,″ said Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration official now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

``Milosevic can survive a prolonged aerial war and proclaim victory in the end, but he cannot survive the introduction of ground forces,″ he said.

But it’s also possible that the cease-fire was an attempt by the Yugoslav leader to play to the home audience _ making an offer he knew would be refused so he could continue to portray NATO as a demonic force bent on destroying Serbia.

``We offer a cease-fire, and they continue bombing,″ fumed Milovan Cvijic, a Serb refugee from another Balkan war. ``There is no backing off now!″

Anthony Cordesman, a professor of national security at Georgetown University in Washington, said Milosevic looked to be trying to ``improve the very negative image of Serbs-as-aggressors in the West.″

``Dealing humanely with the POWs is one way, as is opening up negotiations... His best strategy is to hope that these moves will weaken NATO’s resolve,″ he said.

But are Washington and the NATO allies ready to cut a deal?

If the cease-fire was an attempt to split the Western alliance, it apparently failed _ even member nations less hawkish than the United States and Britain were reported determined Wednesday to continue the air attacks.

Even so, Daalder said, Milosevic is ``a brilliant tactician and he’s now testing with his various probes how little he has to do to get NATO to split. I believe you’ll see other probes like this in coming days.″

President Clinton dismissed Yugoslavia’s cease-fire against ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo as a hollow promise and said Washington and its NATO allies are ``determined to stay united and to persist until we prevail.″

The heaviest night of airstrikes since the NATO assault began March 24 followed Milosevic’s cease-fire offer Tuesday, making clear that NATO countries continue holding out for much more.

NATO leaders have demanded the withdrawal of Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo and an international military force to police a settlement that grants autonomy to Kosovo, a province of the main Yugoslav republic of Kosovo.

Despite the fury among ordinary Serbs over the two-week NATO bombing campaign, Milosevic may still need to do some morale-boosting at home.

Crowds at the daily anti-NATO rock festival held in the heart of Belgrade have dwindled from up to 20,000 _ the day of the first one March 28 _ to about 5,000 on Wednesday. And the defiance voiced during the first days of air attacks appears to be slowly changing to desperation, despite a steady diet of programming on state television meant to strengthen resolve.

``If they want to bomb, they should do it quickly, to get it over with,″ said Zoran Mijuskovic, a Belgrade bookstore owner. ``I am sick of hiding in a cellar.″

And, Milosevic may be hampered in any attempt to offer concessions by his own propaganda campaign that spread the message of a fight to the end rather than caving in to NATO.

``They are ready to give a great deal of things but they don’t know how to start,″ said Miodrag, a man in his 20s who asked not to be fully identified. He said Milosevic must first ``prepare the ground″ so that Serbs who have been told to resist now can accept compromise.

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