Russia agrees to leave Milosevic high and dry

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AFTER 11 weeks during which the Kosovo war strained relations almost to breaking point, Russia and the West yesterday put their differences behind them.

President Milosevic today stands isolated once again following agreement at the Cologne summit of the world's major powers that only a democratic, post-Milosevic Yugoslavia should qualify for aid.

In a concession to the Russian President Boris Yeltsin the final communique of the summit did not explicitly make reconstruction assistance conditional on the removal of Mr Milosevic; but the pledge of "vigorous measures" to stabilise the Balkans carried the clear implication that stability could not be achieved while he remained in power.

The United States President Bill Clinton and Mr Yeltsin, who met for one hour in the Renaissance Hotel, agreed to resume working on arms control and a host of other issues put on hold during Nato's 11-week bombardment of Yugoslavia. Nato officially ended the campaign last night.

"It was a meeting of renewal," the US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said after the talks, the 17th meeting between the two presidents.

"They agreed essentially that our two countries have gone through a difficult period through the Kosovo war that put substantial strains on our relationship, but it was now time to turn to the future, to put that behind us."

For the first time Russia is explicitly backing the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has indicted President Milosevic for war crimes. Simultaneously major steps were taken towards a return to normality in the war-ravaged province, including the start of an organised return of the Kosovo refugees and - most important of all - an imminent deal for the demilitarisation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair said an agreement was expected to be signed late last night in Tirana between KLA leaders and the British General John Reith, compelling the guerrillas to hand over all weapons and to discard their uniforms within 90 days. "This is a great achievement on anyone's terms," he said.

Mr Berger said Mr Yeltsin made a "very interesting" goodwill gesture by giving Mr Clinton a thick file of declassified Russian documents about the assassination of President Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's accused killer, had lived in the former Soviet Union and married a Russian woman.

US officials said they found the ailing Russian leader robust, pounding his fist to emphasise points and producing witticisms. At one point, Mr Berger said Mr Yeltsin joked to Mr Clinton: "If we let the experts do this, we'll never get a done deal."

The agreement with Moscow capped an unusually productive three days for the leaders of the seven richest industrial countries - the US, Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Italy and Canada - and Russia, which have already seen a far-reaching accord to reduce the debt burden on the world's poorest countries and steps to flesh out a "Stability Pact" for the long-term development of the Balkans, and tighten the region's links with both Nato and the European Union.

A first donors' conference on emergency relief will be held in July, followed by another meeting in the autumn to assess the scale of help needed - anywhere from $20bn (pounds 12.6bn) to $100bn according to estimates.

Mr Clinton and Mr Yeltsin discussed the parlous state of Russia's economy, which slid into crisis last August when it devalued the rouble, and its $100bn Soviet-era debt. The Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters the United States had agreed that it favoured writing off some of the debt. But the White House disagreed, saying President Clinton had promised only to raise the issue with other creditors.

However, Mr Berger said debt-rescheduling might be possible through the Paris Club of government creditors, once Russia reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

The summit did not agree who will be the UN's high representative for Kosovo, overseeing the civilian rebuilding. Mr Blair is backing the outgoing Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, saying he would be an "excellent" candidate. The Italians want the EU Commissioner Emma Bonino.