As NATO air attacks against Yugoslavia continued into their 73rd day, military commanders from both sides prepared to meet Saturday to hammer out a detailed timetable for a withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and an end to the NATO bombing campaign.
U.S. and European allied officials said the bombing could stop by the end of the weekend or early next week if Yugoslav commanders agree to the terms of the Western-inspired peace deal accepted Thursday by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The meeting on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia will mark the first face-to-face contact between NATO and Yugoslav military leaders since March 22, two days before the bombing began, when Milosevic rejected a NATO ultimatum for settling the conflict in Kosovo. It will be attended by the commander of NATO's 16,000-member Rapid Reaction Force in Macedonia, British Gen. Mike Jackson, and senior representatives of the Yugoslav general staff.
Yugoslav and NATO officials cast very different spins on the meeting, with the Belgrade government depicting it as a negotiating session and the West insisting that the Serbs will essentially be given their orders to leave Kosovo.
NATO officials said Jackson would inform the Yugoslavs about the routes their retreating forces should take and the manner in which they should store their heavy weapons so the U.S.-led alliance can verify their departure.
Both sides recognized that there are gaps in the outline of a peace agreement brought to Belgrade this week by Russian and European negotiators. One of the most pressing issues is how to deal with the security vacuum that could develop during the period between the evacuation of Serbian forces and the arrival of international peacekeepers in Kosovo, a province of Serbia where secessionist ethnic Albanian guerrillas remain active. Serbia is Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
Heavy fighting between Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and Serbian forces continued in the Mount Pastrik region along the Kosovo-Albanian border today, according to Pentagon officials. Hundreds of Yugoslav troops were trying to destroy the remaining elements of what Pentagon officials described as a badly beaten rebel force that had been trying to mount a two-pronged assault from Albania in the last week.
The fighting on that border has given NATO warplanes the opportunity to strike larger concentrations of Yugoslav troops and equipment than they could find in recent weeks, and to inflict some of the most significant casualties on Serbs as a result. Several important Serbian military commanders were killed by NATO bombing in the area, according to military officials monitoring the fighting.
"I don't think the [peace] process has trickled down to the troops on the fighting line yet," one official said.
While the Yugoslav army has accepted Milosevic's decision to reverse himself on his pledges never to permit NATO troops into Kosovo, military officials here in Belgrade do not hide their misgivings about some aspects of the agreement.
They are deeply mistrustful of Western promises to "demilitarize" the Kosovo Liberation Army and fear that the withdrawal of Serbian troops could lead to the mass exodus of the Serbian minority in Kosovo. This has already happened in Croatia and parts of Bosnia, two former Yugoslav republics that were the setting for bitter ethnic wars several years ago.
"It is very difficult for us to believe the very same people who trained and equipped the KLA are now going to disband it," said a well-placed Yugoslav officer. "The worst thing that could happen now would be for the KLA to enter Kosovo alongside the NATO troops that are now in Macedonia and Albania."
A day after Milosevic accepted key NATO demands on Kosovo, there are already signs of panic among Serbian residents in the province, whose position has veered overnight from relatively secure to highly precarious.
In interviews with reporters, some Serbs insisted that they will leave Kosovo with the departing Yugoslav troops rather than risk the wrath of the returning ethnic Albanian refugees bent on securing revenge for their own sufferings and humiliations.
"The Albanians won't watch us even leaving in peace. They will attack us in refugee columns," said a Serb from Pristina, the Kosovo capital, interviewed by the Reuters news service. "There's no chance the Serbs will stay. It will be like in Croatia and Bosnia."
A quarter of a million ethnic Serbs fled Croatia in 1995 in the wake of an offensive by the Croatian army recapturing areas that had been taken over by Serbian separatists. A few months later, following the signing of the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia, Serbian residents of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, burned their homes and left the city rather than remain in an area that had been awarded to the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
Although Yugoslav leaders have sought to depict the Kosovo peace plan as a victory for common sense, the abrupt turnaround by Milosevic in accepting it has left a bad taste in the mouths of many ordinary Serbs, raising questions about the point of the sacrifices of the last two and a half months of NATO bombing. Adding salt to the wound has been the fact that the NATO air raids have continued despite the agreement, albeit at a significantly reduced level.
Speaking after a European Union summit in Germany today, French President Jacques Chirac said NATO leaders have agreed to refocus the bombing campaign to "strictly military objectives." The decision appeared to rule out further bombing of "dual-use targets" -- such as power grids and factories making both civilian and military products -- that has severely disrupted life in Belgrade and other Serbian cities.
NATO warplanes attacked 51 more targets Thursday and continued today to hit tanks, artillery batteries and other Yugoslav forces, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said. The strikes were focused more on Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, however, and less on military and industrial targets in Serbia proper.
[Air raid sirens sounded early Saturday in Belgrade but there were no initial reports of bombing in the capital, Reuters news agency said. Serbian television said missiles struck the area of Decani in western Kosovo and near Prizren in the southwest just after midnight.]
NATO leaders have warned that the bombing raids will continue until Milosevic demonstrates that he is willing to pull all of his forces out of Kosovo. Under the agreement brought to Belgrade by Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yugoslavia will be permitted to send "hundreds" of soldiers back to Kosovo to guard key border crossings and Serbian religious sites, but only after the withdrawal is complete.
It was unclear who would represent the Yugoslav army in Saturday's talks with NATO commanders. A meeting with the Yugoslav army chief of staff, Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, who has been indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities in Kosovo, would likely prove embarrassing for NATO officers.
Instead, Belgrade might decide to send Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the commander of the Yugoslav Third Army, who has had overall responsibility for the war in Kosovo.
The meeting will also be attended by Russian and Finnish representatives.
Under the terms of the agreement approved by Milosevic and the Serbian parliament, Yugoslavia must withdraw all mobile air defense systems in Kosovo within 48 hours and all troops within seven days. NATO officials said that the exact moment when the clock begins ticking will be set at the meeting.
Bacon said NATO will present a detailed plan on Saturday for Yugoslav forces to withdraw from Kosovo in phases, with troops moving from west to east across the province. He said Yugoslav troops will be required initially not just to leave Kosovo but to clear a zone 15 miles wide into Serbia proper.
The zone is intended to help provide a security buffer for NATO-led peacekeepers who are scheduled to deploy in Kosovo, Bacon said. It will be wide enough, he added, to move Yugoslav SA-6 antiaircraft missiles out of range of hitting NATO warplanes patrolling over Kosovo.
Senior NATO military officials said the vanguard of a peacekeeping force now based in Macedonia will require several days to prepare their equipment before they are ready to enter Kosovo. Moreover, some NATO members are reluctant to send troops before a U.N. Security Council resolution is passed, which may not occur until late next week.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrial democracies and Russia were planning to meet in the coming days to finalize the language of the resolution.
NATO military experts estimate it will take 30 to 60 days for the entire contingent of nearly 50,000 NATO troops to take up their positions.
One looming problem is a huge bottleneck building up at Thessaloniki, Greece, which serves as the main port of entry for troops and equipment destined to join the Kosovo peacekeeping force. They said the timetable for troop deployment may only be achieved if other countries neighboring Kosovo, such as Bulgaria and Romania, open their doors to permit the transit of NATO forces.
Another major hindrance, NATO sources said, is the huge number of mines planted by Yugoslav forces along much of the border and key entrance roads into the province. Under the accord, Serbian forces are supposed to help with the de-mining tasks.
Correspondent William Drozdiak in Brussels and staff writers Dana Priest and Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: A White House awards ceremony for the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities was one of several opportunities Clinton seized to comment on how pleased he is about the proposed peace plan for Kosovo.