The Balkans Truce So what sort of peace will it be?: Intervention Force - US Marines to lead the way

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THE FIRST Nato forces to enter Kosovo are in for one of their trickiest operations: trying to secure a mountainous province in the wake of withdrawing Serbian troops, slowed by the destruction wreaked by their own bombing, Serbian landmines, destitute Kosovars and impatient returnees.

The Nato entry into Kosovo is among the most sensitive aspects of the settlement, and - although contingency plans are in place - the details remain to be hammered out at today's meeting between General Michael Jackson and Yugoslav general staff officers at the Serbia-Kosovo border. The outcome of that meeting will determine when Nato bombing stops - it could end as early as tomorrow - and by which routes the Yugoslav forces withdraw. Seven days have been allowed for the withdrawal to be completed, but Nato wants no vacuum left between withdrawing forces and entry of the alliance troops.

The Pentagon says up to 2,500 US Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard ships in the Adriatic will be among the advance group of an "enabling force" sent in to secure Kosovo and clear the way for the main 50,000-strong peace-keeping force. The Marines are likely to land at the Greek port of Thessaloniki, then move into Kosovo through Macedonia.

The first forces will secure transport centres, including airfields, strategic objects such as power stations, and key routes including river crossings and mountain passes.

One of the main problems they expect is the likely impatience of refugees to return home before their safety can be guaranteed. Another is the delicate question of disarming the KLA.

Provisionally, Kosovo is to be divided into five sectors, one for each major Nato country. A sizeable Russian group is also to be accommodated, but there is as yet no decision on where it will be deployed and the precise arrangements for its command. Nato insists there must be a unified command.