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The Balkans Truce: Serbia's generals prepare to face the final shame

IN AN ultimate humiliation for the Serbs, the Yugoslav army high command will meet a British general on the Macedonian border today to agree the terms of its withdrawal from Kosovo. General Mike Jackson will meet the commanders on the same border where, weeks before, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians streamed across in a tide of misery and desperation not seen in Europe since the forced migrations at the end of the Second World War.

The choice of the site will not be lost on the Yugoslav generals. There, where Serbian border guards gleefully tore up refugees' documents and ripped out the vehicle number plates to stop them from returning to their homes, Serb military chiefs will agree on the details of their own departure from the province they consider the cradle of the nation.

On behalf of Nato the 55-year-old British general will demand maps showing the location of mines and booby traps and warn that the actions of the retreating forces will be monitored. There is frantic military activity in Macedonia as General Jackson's force prepares to move in as soon as a withdrawal by Slobodan Milosevic's forces begins. Senior defence sources say one plan is for the First Battalion of The Parachute Regiment to go in by helicopter and secure the airport in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

The Paras will be followed by a battalion of Gurkhas and US Marines stationed in the Ionian Sea. Britain is sending eight Chinook and four Puma helicopters for the paratroops' use.

Nato strategists want a large-scale Serbian withdrawal by Tuesday, although Serbian commanders will say there is not enough time and that they do not have enough fuel. Nato will not harry the retreating Serbs out of the province. The alliance spokesman, Jamie Shea, said: "They know the way back home."

The alliance fears that President Milosevic's forces, especially the often anarchic paramilitary groups, may lay waste the territory they are leaving behind. Another worry is that the entire Serbian civilian population of Kosovo will pack and flee with the retreating army rather than face the inevitable wrath of the returning Albanians.

Stunned Serbs in Pristina warned that they would dig up their ancestors' bodies and load them on to carts rather than leave a single trace behind. "It will be like in Croatia and Bosnia," one man said, recalling the exodus from the Krajina and from Sarajevo in 1995. "Like them, we will dig up our dead and take them with us." About 10 per cent of Kosovo's 1.8 million population is Serbian.

Nato officials expect the Serbs to raise the question of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is expected to spill across the border in large numbers as soon as the Serbs quit. US army officers, according to defence sources, have been meeting KLA leaders in Albania and urging them to exercise restraint and not fire on the retreating Serbs. "Clearly we will want the KLA to exercise restraint," Mr Shea said.

In Cologne, attending the European Union summit, Tony Blair, said the paratroops would not be "an aggressive force" but suggested they might meet pockets of Serbian resistance. "We are going to be going into a situation where Serb forces have been very active and it is necessary to have every single part of this special force properly equipped for all eventualities. Hopefully, we have seen the beginning of the end."

Mr Blair added that the job would not be done until the 800,000 Kosovo refugees were back in their homes. The Prime Minister warned Mr Milosevic that there was "no question" of halting Nato's bombing campaign until it was clear its demands were being met. "We will not trust Mr Milosevic's word. We have had enough experience of him breaking it."

Although there was no mention in the peace deal of Mr Milosevic's indictment for crimes against humanity by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Mr Blair said that did not mean he would never be prosecuted.

He warned Serbia that the devastated country of 10 million would not receive a penny of aid while Mr Milosevic remained in power. An emotional Mr Blair spoke of his "just cause", a triumph of good over evil. "We did it for justice.

"Let this mark the point at which those countries so often scarred by ethnic conflicts and religious and racial divisions were able to be brought properly into the true family of European nations."

For all the tough talk about putting Mr Milosevic on trial, the West does need him to remain in power for at least the next few months, until the pull-out of his forces from Kosovo is completed.

A French diplomatic source at the Cologne summit said Nato could stop bombing as soon as tomorrow if Belgrade agrees on a withdrawal.

Halting the bombing by the weekend would ease the way for the foreign ministers of the G8 nations - seven Western industrial nations plus Russia - to approve a draft UN Security Council resolution on a Kosovo settlement.

The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said he expected work to start on a resolution "as early as next week". Asked whether he thought the conflict over Kosovo would soon be at an end, he said: "Yes, I am optimistic."