Unarmed observers to police Kosovo accord

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THE TURNING point in Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic push to resolve the Kosovo crisis, was, it seems, the moment when President Slobodan Milosevic made the key concession: an international presence to verify the withdrawal of his special forces from Kosovo.

Crucially Yugoslavia has agreed to allow a 2,000-strong unarmed force into Kosovo to ensure it complies with United Nations demands. But the inspection mechanism the Serbs have agreed to falls well short of the powerful international security presence urged by human rights groups and aid agencies as a means of creating the climate for the safe return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to their bombed out homes and villages and for negotiating a political settlement.

President Milosevic has conceded the principle of international interference, but only after guarantees that the verification mission will be civilian, unarmed and under the auspices of the pan-European security body, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, not Nato, although non-combat Nato aircraft will be carrying out aerial surveillance over the Serbian province to back up the mission .

Policing the deal is now up to the OSCE permanent council in Vienna. An advance team of monitors is expected to be in place within a week, but it will be a month at least before the mission is at full strength. At the OSCE doubts were raised about the organisation's suitability for the task. "It's quite an endeavour," an official said. "It's the first time we would be asked to carry out such a verification of a troop withdrawal."

The logic of the deal for both sides is obvious. The Yugoslav president can claim that he has averted air strikes, kept the forces of Nato out of Serbian territory and that his Russian allies will be playing a key role in monitoring and looking after Serb interests.

The United States and its Western allies claim to have got what they wanted on compliance with UN demands and autonomy for Kosovo. But in allowing the Serbs a face- saving formula - an acceptable price for getting him to the negotiating table it was felt - they may have undermined the entire basis for the political settlement and for efforts to contain Serb aggression.

Mr Milosevic has pledged that the 2,000-member civilian force will have complete freedom of movement. The verifiers will be backed up from the air by unarmed Nato reconnaissance aircraft, which will overfly Kosovo to keep a watch on troop withdrawal.

Unarmed monitoring teams will be as vulnerable to intimidation as the UN forces in Bosnia have been. There they faced hostile Serb mortar fire and land mines and were shot at by snipers. The OSCE mission may prove woefully ill-equipped to carry out the key task, which is to restore the confidence members of the ethnic Albanian community who are too terrified to return to their homes and villages from where they have already fled in fear.

And if thousands of international monitors are crawling over Kosovo, President Milosevic knows that Nato will be unable to mount the ultimate sanction of air strikes.

Lotte Leicht, of Human Rights Watch, an organisation that has been to the fore in exposing the detail of Serb repression in Kosovo, is extremely sceptical.

"Will this mission be able to protect civilians in Kosovo and prevent Serb forces from attacking them? I am doubtful. We are not seeing clear- cut agreements on access for example to places of detention, nor on full information about the lines of command within the Serb forces," she said.

She points out that the OSCE was thrown out of the former Yugoslavia by President Milosevic six years ago. "I do not see the latest agreement as a key concession on his part. The international community, on the other hand, seems to be settling for a lot less than it has been demanding for six years, which is that the OSCE be allowed to return permanently to Yugoslavia."

The 54-nation Vienna-based organisation has no experience in monitoring military withdrawals. A spokesman said yesterday: "This will be virgin territory for us."

Its efforts in Croatia, where it is helping to implement the Dayton agreements, in trying to ensure the safe the return of refugees have been sharply criticised. "People are not returning. The OSCE has not been able to create a climate where people feel safe," Ms Leicht said.

Yet the deployment of an unarmed civilian mission is as convenient for allied governments as it seems to be for President Milosevic. Few Nato governments want to see their troops drawn into a lengthy engagement in Kosovo.

The United States in particular did not want to see its own combat troops on the ground, having become bogged down in Bosnia three years after the Dayton agreements.

The Belgrade formula is also politically acceptable to Moscow because it keeps Nato at bay and gives nominal strength to a rival security organisation that includes the former Soviet bloc.