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NATO, Serb Leaders Talk Peace

June 5, 1999

BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ NATO met all afternoon with Yugoslav generals at a Macedonian coffeehouse along the Kosovo border Saturday to spell out the exact terms for the withdrawal of Serb troops from Kosovo _ a key condition for the allied bombings of Yugoslavia to halt.

The talks adjourned after five hours, and a NATO spokesman, Lt. Col. Robin Clifford, said the Yugoslavs asked for more time to consult ``higher authorities″ about terms of the withdrawal.

Clifford said the meeting would resume Sunday morning at NATO’s Kumanovo base in Macedonia. He called the talks ``very constructive ... with positive results.″

Nevertheless, the failure to reach agreement Saturday cast doubt on whether the 2 1/2-month-old air campaign would end this weekend, which Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said was possible if the two sides finalized the withdrawal plan promptly.

Alliance jets, meanwhile, struck throughout Kosovo, hitting at military targets just 12 miles from the talks even as British commander Michael Jackson was joined at the Europe cafe by a delegation of Yugoslav generals that showed up three hours late.

NATO aircraft broke the sound barrier over the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, Nis and several other cities in Serbia, the Tanjug state news agency reported Saturday afternoon. It said no bombing raids were recorded afterwards.

NATO said there would be no negotiations in Blace over terms to end the bombing campaign that began March 24 following a bloody 13-month crackdown on ethnic Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb forces _ just details establishing the conditions and logistics of the pullout.

The talks that started at noon on a hillside overlooking no man’s land were expected to be long and tedious, lasting until the Serb delegation headed back by car to Yugoslav territory for what Clifford said would be consultations on ``a few points″ of the withdrawal plan.

Russian observers were invited to attend, NATO said, but never showed up. The Russian Defense Ministry said it was unaware it was to take part in the meeting. Russia has opposed some terms of the peace plan that mediator Viktor Chernomyrdin played a major role in crafting.

Bacon said there has been no indication three days after Yugoslavia announced it had accepted NATO’s demands to end the conflict that Serb forces are withdrawing.

As a result, NATO said it was continuing to attack Serb forces in Kosovo while intensifying preparations to enter the southern Yugoslav province once a verified withdrawal has begun and help return hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees home from Macedonia and Albania.

Tanjug said NATO jets fired four missiles near Urosevac, close to Blace. NATO attacks were also reported near Mount Goles southwest of Kosovo’s capital and the southern city of Prizren.

NATO said allied planes struck 30 artillery pieces, nine tanks and over two dozen other military targets in Kosovo during 536 sorties.

``Other facilities that support Serb forces in Kosovo responsible for the ethnic cleansing were attacked,″ NATO said in a statement, including a command post at Pristina.

At the same time, preparations were accelerating to move into the area with the 49,000-strong international peacekeeping force.

Jackson, commander of close to 16,000 NATO troops already in Macedonia preparing to enter Kosovo as part of that force, put his headquarters in Skopje on 24-hour notice.

It was Jackson who arrived first at the Blace meeting, followed by a European Union delegation. A short time later, five sedans carrying the Yugoslav delegation pulled up to the coffeehouse reserved for the talks.

Clifford said the delegates were working through detailed documents laying out NATO’s terms for the troop pullout from Kosovo, and both sides were taking care to make sure translations for the Yugoslav delegation were precise.

``It is crucially important that everybody understands what is meant by the words,″ Clifford said.

The Yugoslav delegation was led by Col. Gen. Blagoje Kovacevic, a deputy chief of staff of Yugoslavia’s army, and Col. Gen. Obrad Stevanovic, a senior commander in the Serbian special police forces. Both have troops active in Kosovo.

The meeting was the first direct talks between NATO and Yugoslav military personnel since the air campaign began.

Russian troops taking part in the international force to supervise the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo will have to operate under what is effectively NATO command, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said Saturday.

Although Russia’s leaders are expressing doubts about this, Cook said there was ``no question of there being a distinct, independent Russian zone not answering to the rest of the international military force″ in the province.

``There is not going to be an East German solution,″ he said, referring to the partition of Berlin into different allied sectors at the end of World War II.

NATO members ``have to recognize the realities that the Russians are not going to go back to their parliament and say we have put our troops under NATO officers,″ Cook said.

Withdrawal of Serb troops is the key condition before NATO will stop its bombing campaign and begin preparing the way for the return of more than 855,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled since March.

British Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson said NATO had drawn up ``outline proposals″ to divide Kosovo into five zones, but described this as for military purposes only.

``We are absolutely determined that there should be no political division of Kosovo as a result of the geographical allocation of peacekeeping forces,″ he told reporters in London.

At Blace, the main crossing point for refugees fleeing from Kosovo into Macedonia, the tents set up outside the coffeehouse for the talks were put under guard by an Italian contingent of NATO troops.

Binoculars and tank guns were trained on hills to the north, just inside Yugoslavia, where Serb snipers have been reported in recent weeks.

The Yugoslavs are expected to demand NATO guarantees that the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army will not exploit the pullout by sending guerrillas deeper into Kosovo.

The Pentagon said the bombings could end as soon as Sunday if Serb authorities keep up their part of the peace deal.

``It’s all up to the Serbs,″ Shea said.

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