Yugoslavia accepted an international peace plan for ending the Kosovo conflict today, bowing to NATO demands for the withdrawal of all army and police forces from the province and the deployment of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in an apparent capitulation that could bring a halt to 10 weeks of allied bombing.
President Clinton and other NATO leaders reacted cautiously to word of the agreement, saying it represents the beginning of a peace process, not the end. Clinton vowed that NATO airstrikes would continue until the alliance has clear confirmation that the Serb-led government in Belgrade is fully carrying out the terms of the accord.
"Until then, and until Serb forces begin a verifiable withdrawal from Kosovo, we will continue to pursue diplomacy, but we will also continue the military effort that has brought us to this point," Clinton said in a statement in the White House Rose Garden. (Story on Page A29.)
The agreement followed a second day of talks here between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Russia's special Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who represented the European Union.
On Wednesday, the two envoys presented Milosevic with the detailed peace proposal, which they had agreed on in talks in Germany this week with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. The plan was accepted without objections today by the Yugoslav federal government and the Serbian parliament, which approved it by a vote of 136 to 74. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.
"We have been informed that the federal government and the parliament of Serbia accept the peace offer we have made," Ahtisaari said. He said that in this morning's meeting with Milosevic, he answered some final questions on the plan posed by the Yugoslav leader. "I had to be candid; it was the best offer the international community could come up with," Ahtisaari said.
Despite the agreement, NATO warplanes continued to attack Yugoslav targets. Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald said allied planes had hit 19 Yugoslav artillery and mortar sites in Kosovo by early evening and were going after other targets throughout Yugoslavia.
Following a meeting with Clinton and the Pentagon's military chiefs, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said there would have to be further evidence of Belgrade's commitment to peace before NATO would stop its air campaign.
"NATO intends to continue the airstrikes until Milosevic and the government of Yugoslavia convincingly demonstrate that the fighting is over, that Serb forces are withdrawing and that a NATO-led force can enter Kosovo to provide the security that the refugees need to return to their homes," Cohen said. "At this point, not a single Serb soldier has withdrawn from Kosovo, and we have to keep that in mind as we view the workings of today."
Cohen said a "military-to-military understanding, an agreement" between Yugoslav and NATO officers still would have to be worked out "within the next several days" to set the terms for the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces.
If borne out, the accord will represent a notable achievement for NATO, which over the past 10 weeks has flown more than 31,000 sorties and dropped nearly 20,000 bombs and missiles on Yugoslavia to force the Milosevic government to end its brutal crackdown against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. Thousands of civilians in the province are believed to have been killed, raped and tortured. In the course of its air campaign, NATO bombs have hit residential neighborhoods in Belgrade and other cities, killing scores of men, women and children, along with dozens of ethnic Albanian refugees in Kosovo.
The accord also will represent an enormous concession for Milosevic, who apparently has accepted all of the toughest NATO conditions he had vowed to oppose, including the deployment of U.S., British, French and other allied forces in Kosovo and the withdrawal of all but a few hundred of his security forces from the province. Milosevic made no public comment today.
In many ways, however, the accord is only the beginning. The monumental task of returning more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who have fled Kosovo -- in addition to hundreds of thousands displaced inside the province -- will have to be organized, as well as a reconstruction effort on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the end of World War II. Thousands of Kosovo Albanian-owned homes and businesses were looted and burned by marauding government security forces -- in short, the province the refugees are to return to is a shell of the one they fled.
The United States and its allies also must quickly clarify several lingering differences with the Yugoslavs and the Russians if the terms of the agreement are to be carried out smoothly. The most critical issues involve the link between a bombing halt and the extent of a Yugoslav troop withdrawal; the scope of Russia's participation in the peacekeeping force; and measures needed to demilitarize Kosovo's secessionist ethnic Albanian guerrillas before they fill any security vacuum left by the departing government forces.
NATO is already accelerating an expanded deployment of up to 50,000 troops -- nearly double the number initially planned -- and allied commanders say that a vanguard of 20,000 soldiers, including 2,500 U.S. troops from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Force now aboard ships in the Adriatic Sea, could be dispatched to Kosovo within days. The U.S. has pledged to send a total of 7,000 troops, third in number behind Britain and France.
According to the text of the document accepted by the Serbian parliament today, an international peacekeeping force -- which is to be sanctioned by a U.N. Security Council resolution -- will deploy in Kosovo "with an essential NATO participation." Russian troops and forces from other non-NATO countries will also participate in the peacekeeping mission, Chernomyrdin said after returning to Moscow. He said Russian troops will operate under their own command but in coordination with NATO.
The plan calls for a withdrawal of "all military, police and paramilitary forces" from Kosovo on "a fast and precise timetable" and stipulates that NATO airstrikes would be suspended "after the beginning of the withdrawal which can be verified." The withdrawal, the document said, should be completed in seven days. NATO estimates there are 40,000 Yugoslav troops and Serbian special police in and around Kosovo.
"We don't intend to shoot the Serbs in the back as they are leaving," said a top NATO military commander. "If they comply with the accord in the way they should, there is no reason why the bombing cannot be halted within 72 hours."
The accord provides for the return of "a small and agreed upon number" of Serbian forces -- adding parenthetically that this would total "hundreds, not thousands" of troops -- after a withdrawal is complete. The returning forces would work with international officials, help clear mines, guard Serbian religious and historical monuments and occupy key border crossings.
It also calls for the demilitarization of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian rebel group that has been battling government forces in the province for nearly 18 months. The KLA, which has insisted it will accept nothing short of Kosovo's independence, reacted cautiously to the announcement of the agreement.
Although the accord calls for establishment of self-rule for Kosovo, and thus its ethnic Albanian majority, it respects Belgrade's continued sovereignty over the province.
The agreement came on the 72nd day of NATO airstrikes, a period in which Yugoslav troops and Serbian police and paramilitary units drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes. In recent weeks, military targets in Kosovo have been subjected to nearly round-the-clock bombing, while Serbia is littered with bombed-out factories, bridges, army barracks and broken rail lines.
At the beginning of the conflict, Milosevic pledged that no foreign troops would ever set foot in Kosovo, which Serbs regard as the cradle of their culture and identity as a people. He is now faced with the task of explaining not only his turnabout, but the deployment of U.S, British and French troops and forces from other countries that took part in the bombing campaign.
The Yugoslav president also has been indicted on war-crimes charges by the international tribunal in The Hague for alleged offenses against Kosovo Albanians. A tribunal spokesman said today that the U.N. body had not sought any specific guarantees about its mandate or jurisdiction in investigating war crimes in Kosovo as part of the peace deal. Since the outbreak of full-scale violence in Kosovo last year, a succession of U.N. Security Council resolutions has asserted the tribunal's right to prosecute war crimes committed in the region.
Milosevic appeared to be counting on acceptance of the idea that had Yugoslavia not gone to war, Kosovo could have been lost under the terms of a peace proposal put forth early this year in Rambouillet, France, before the NATO airstrikes began. Milosevic rejected the Rambouillet proposals, which, unlike today's agreement, had left open the possibility of Kosovo's ultimate independence.
Milosevic also appears to be counting on the Security Council, which is expected to be asked to endorse the agreement, to protect Yugoslav interests in Kosovo. Russia, which supported Belgrade morally but not materially, and China, offended by NATO's bombing of its embassy in Belgrade, hold vetoes on the Security Council.
"The [Yugoslav] federal government fully supports the plan," an official statement said. "The plan guarantees sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It disables terrorist activities and stops aggression." Belgrade officials routinely refer to the KLA guerrillas as terrorists.
Milosevic's Socialist Party defended the agreement on the grounds that "the document means peace and a halt to the evil bombing of our nation."
"With the unity of the nation, citizens and political parties and leadership, and the heroic battle of the army and police," the statement said, "we defended freedom, dignity and honor of our nation from the many-fold superior military and enemy NATO pact, which committed aggression on our country with the aim to nullify our sovereignty and territorial integrity, against all norms of international law."
Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio and associate of Milosevic, bridled at suggestions that this accord meant surrender. "It's a wrong attitude and a wrong appreciation of Milosevic," he said. "The biggest risk is the continuation of war. This is not an ideal agreement, but we have always been in favor of a political solution, and now we proved it."
Milosevic met with loyalist and political opposition leaders Wednesday night and revealed his intention to accept the peace plan. This morning, political infighting erupted in a blink.
Vuk Draskovic, a moderate opposition leader who was ousted from the cabinet during the conflict, welcomed the plan. "This is a great day for peace and for the future of democracy," he told a crush of reporters at his office. He said he is willing to shake the hands of U.S. troops when they arrive in Kosovo, and he chided extreme nationalists for plunging the country into war.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vojislav Seselj, head of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, said he will quit the government. "We will not wait in the government the arrival of NATO troops in the territory," he told parliament. "NATO troops will for sure not feel safe in Kosovo."
Pentagon officials reported no sign that government forces had begun to pull out of Kosovo or even that orders had been issued to prepare for a withdrawal.
While encouraged by Belgrade's acceptance of the draft agreement, U.S. defense officials said a more detailed operational plan would have to be worked out with Yugoslav authorities, setting forth a timetable for withdrawal and the specific powers of an international peacekeeping force.
"What we have is a relatively bare-bones statement that has to be translated into a much clearer military and operational plan," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.
Staff writer Bradley Graham in Washington, and correspondents David Hoffman in Moscow, William Drozdiak in Brussels and Charles Trueheart in Paris contributed to this report.
The Peace Deal: Key Points
* An end to the fighting in Kosovo.
* A quick and verifiable withdrawal of all Yugoslav and Serb forces from Kosovo.
* Deployment to Kosovo of a security force with "fundamental participation of NATO," under unified command.
* Eventual return to Kosovo of only "hundreds, not thousands" of Yugoslav and Serb forces.
* The safe and free return of all 850,000-plus ethnic Albanian refugees expelled.
* "Substantial autonomy" for Kosovo.
Steps still to be taken:
* U.N. resolution authorizing peacekeeping force.
* Start of Yugoslav troop withdrawal, which triggers NATO bombing halt.
* Clarification of Russian role in peacekeeping force.
* "Demilitarization" of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
CAPTION: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder embraces Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the European Union envoy for the Kosovo crisis. Ahtisaari proceeded to Germany after the completion of his successful mission to Belgrade.
CAPTION: Chernomyrdin, Russia's Balkans envoy, listens as Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the military's international department, discusses the Kosovo peace accord.
CAPTION: Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, who was fired as deputy premier on April 28, cheers the Serbian parliament's approval of the proposed peace plan.
CAPTION: American soldiers from the First Armored Division sit on their M1A1 Abraham tank before patrolling the perimeter of the U.S. Army's Task Force Hawk base in Albania. More than 5,000 troops are deployed with the unit.