Serbs leave Kosovo on deadline

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The Independent Online
THE THREAT of Nato's big guns look finally to have persuaded President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw substantial numbers of special police and army units from the contested central area of Kosovo, hours before the latest Alliance deadline expires today.

Hundreds of police and dozens of army vehicles, including tanks, were seen leaving the Drenica region in a convincing display of departure.

Kosovo's separatist rebels, who had moved into one position within minutes of the Serbian police withdrawal, were grinning as they surveyed the debris left at the petrol station commandeered as a fortified police post in Dragobil. "It's our place, we feel good to be back," one young man bearing the red badge of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) said with a smile.

Yesterday's pull-out came after a new agreement was negotiated by Nato's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, at the weekend during marathon talks in Belgrade with Mr Milosevic. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, insisted yesterday that the agreement made no concessions to the Yugoslav strongman.

The move means Nato's threat of air strikes against Yugoslavia - a 10- day ultimatum for full and irreversible compliance with UN demands on Kosovo expires at 8pm tonight - looks unlikely to be carried out.

There were also signs that Western governments may have relaxed their definition of what constitutes compliance with the UN resolutions.

Nato officials in Brussels were no longer talking about "full and irreversible compliance", but said Mr Milosevic had until this afternoon to reach "an acceptable level of compliance".

The White House was also referring yesterday to a need for "significant" compliance on the ground by today.

Nato ambassadors gather this evening in Brussels to decide the next move, but few diplomats believe the activation order, authorised two weeks ago to put Nato forces on a war footing, will be followed up by a strike order. Mr Cook confirmed in Luxembourg that General Clark and General Klaus Naumann had extracted new undertakings from Mr Milosevic during the weekend talks in Belgrade.

But Mr Cook said the threat of air strikes remained on the table. "The planes are still on the runway. 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 officials said nobody in the alliance trusted Mr Milosevic's pledges or promises, but the decision on whether or not to launch air strikes would be based on him fulfilling the steps agreed over the weekend by today. This would be checked on the ground by members of the Kosovo diplomatic observer mission.

Verifiers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have not yet been deployed in any great number because of delays in setting up channels for moving them to safety if attacked, and because only 800 have so far been recruited. Nato officials refused to say how many extra troop and special police units must be withdrawn from Kosovo by the deadline, saying only that Mr Milosevic must "lift the heavy hand of intimidation from the backs of the civilian population" and return troop and heavy- weapon levels in the province to the pre-March "baseline". "We see no interest in making this public. The only one who needs to have the information is the man who makes things happen in FRY [Former Republic of Yugoslavia]," said an official.

Most of the focus, sources said, was on the rate of withdrawal of special police units, which has up to now been slower than for troops, but they said it would be "unhelpful" publicly to identify how many or which units must be removed.

But there had been a number of positive signs in the 10 days since the ultimatum was issued. "What we've seen since then is a distinct turn for the better," said one diplomat.

Heavy fighting had stopped 40,000 of the 50,000 civilians camping out in the Kosovo hills returning home. There was some if not enough, movement on withdrawal of troops and special police units back to barracks, and there was now a possibility of talks on a long- term settlement beginning.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Europe's new foreign-affairs figurehead has been put on ice for eight months, dealing a fresh blow to EU hopes of establishing a more powerful world presence.

Despite concern over Europe's role in the Kosovo crisis, there have been only two nominations for the job, which could rival that of the Commission president in its public profile. European leaders have decided to put off a decision on the post until summer.

Britain's nominee, Sir David Hannay, is thought unlikely to succeed because the consensus among Europe's foreign ministers is that the job should go to a politician rather than a diplomat.