Leaders hail peace as refugees die of cold

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AS THE shape of the deal averting a Nato attack became clearer last night, Western leaders insisted they remained ready to unleash air strikes within days against Slobodan Milosevic if he failed to comply with United Nations demands over Kosovo.

In Brussels, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, claimed that the Belgrade agreement represented a "big climbdown" by the Yugoslav leader, containing commitments that would offer the overwhelmingly ethnic-Albanian province self-government and a "new beginning". Those words summed up the satisfied but wary mood in Western capitals after the breakthrough sealed yesterday by the United States envoy Richard Holbrooke after nine days of negotiation.

Governments believe the threat of force has worked, but officials insisted last night that Mr Milosevic must make concrete progress within the four- day grace period, which expires on Friday. "We're not out of the emergency, we're still in it," Mr Holbrooke warned after wrapping up talks with Mr Milosevic.

That view was more than shared by the 300,000 or more Albanian refugees, driven from their homes in seven months of fighting, in whose name Nato this week moved to the brink of its first use of force in an independent and sovereign state.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton listed the conditions that Belgrade must meet. Troops sent into Kosovo had to withdraw, to bring Serb forces back to their March level, while 2,000 monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe had to be given freedom of movement. Nato had to be able to set up its air surveillance system without hindrance. Humanitarian organisations had to be able to go about their business unimpeded, while negotiations between the Serbs and the Albanian majority must begin in earnest. "Balkan graveyards are full of the broken promises of Slobodan Milosevic," Mr Clinton said, while Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, said Nato was prepared to "see this thing through".

Last night the six American B-52 bombers deployed to Britain to lead the attack still stood ready for take-off at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

But, President Milosevic did promise in a television broadcast to "accelerate the political process", and the Yugoslav government announced that elections would be held in Kosovo by autumn 1999. The Kosovo Liberation Army rejected the deal, saying it did not allow Albanians the right to self determination within three years.

President Milosevic insisted that the deal preserved the territorial integrity of his country, implicitly ruling out independence for the province, something that is also opposed by the West, on the grounds that it would merely re-inforce demands for a "Greater Albania" and further destabilise the southern Balkans.

Kosovo turning point, page 13