Prague, 4 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - The conflict in Yugoslavia appears to be drawing to a close following Belgrade's acceptance of a peace plan under which NATO and Russian troops are to enter Kosovo to safeguard the return of ethnic Albanian refugees.
But many questions remain to be answered before it will become clear whether the military conflict between Belgrade and NATO has actually ended. Even more questions surround details of the peace plan's further implementation if and when Serb forces withdraw from Kosovo as the plan stipulates.
The outline proposals were drawn up by the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia. The final document approved by Belgrade yesterday was not officially published but its contents were widely circulated.
Belgrade appears to have agreed to all five NATO conditions for ending its 10-week-long campaign of air strikes aimed at reversing the Serb expulsion of Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians.
They are an end to the violence in Kosovo; the withdrawal of all Serb forces; the entry of an international force with a substantial NATO presence; safe return of all refugees; and a political settlement.
The deal requires Belgrade to rapidly withdraw its 40,000 troops, police and paramilitaries from Kosovo. It also must allow in 50,000 troops under UN auspices, many from NATO nations and under NATO command, to police the province.
Russian troops are to form part of the peacekeeping force, although the command structure is still unclear. Moscow has insisted that its contingent will not serve under NATO's command.
The proposals accepted yesterday did n-o-t include a referendum on Kosovo's status to be held in the majority ethnic Albanian province after three years. The referendum was among the draft proposals accepted by the Albanian side, but bitterly rejected by Serbs, at the abortive Rambouillet peace talks in France earlier this year. Despite yesterday's reported pact, NATO planes continued to strike at Serb targets in the past 24 hours. British defense spokesman, Air Marshall John Day, was asked at a daily ministry briefing whether the strikes are now more for show rather than serious attacks on Serb forces. "It is not just a show of bombing, but clearly NATO is going to be very careful that the use of power is carefully linked to the political process." Day also said that the alliance is keeping all its options open: "We are keeping all our options open, including maintaining the bombing campaign, should that be required. However, our main focus now is to be able to implement quickly the emerging peace agreement." U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both said that the air war would continue until there is what they called "a verifiable withdrawal" of the Serb forces from Kosovo.
Clinton said he welcomed the Belgrade leadership's move to accept the conditions set by NATO and the international community. But he said that, based on past experience, "we must also be cautious" -- a reference to Milosevic's failure to honor previous undertakings.
Diplomats from the G7 countries have begun discussions to draft a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the presence of a security force, and a temporary Kosovo administration.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said today that NATO military commanders will meet with Yugoslav military officials tomorrow in order to formulate the terms of a Yugoslav withdrawal. He did not disclose the location of talks, but said they will not take place in Belgrade. He said the sooner a Serb withdrawal is underway, the sooner NATO bombing will end.
Western and Russian officials met last night in Cologne to determine the sequence of steps needed for a settlement, including a possible pause in the air strikes, and entry of the foreign troops.
Diplomats say all 19 NATO countries have offered to contribute to the peacekeeping mission, along with Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Sweden and Finland. The largest contingent will come from Britain which has offered 17,000 troops.
Unconfirmed reports say the force, which could begin moving into Kosovo within days of a final agreement, will ultimately occupy the entire province.
The force will be nearly the size of the one that entered a much-larger Bosnia in 1995. The unconfirmed reports also say the province may be divided into five sectors, each overseen by NATO's five largest members, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy and Britain.
British Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd said today that the peace keeping force and aid agencies face an unknown challenge in securing the return of refugees:
"There are enormous challenges, and some of these quite frankly are not yet quantifiable, or even knowable, because we don't know, and we can't yet know, what the scale of damage that was inflicted by Milosevic and his troops really was in Kosovo. Until that kind of assessment is made, it's going to be very difficult to know what will be required in order that the returning refugees can be properly sheltered, properly fed, and can begin the process of rebuilding their infrastructure and their lives."
Reports indicate that under the peace plan, fewer than 1,000 Serb personnel will be allowed to re-enter Kosovo to guard key border posts and Serbian historic and holy sites. Their presence will be a token of the continuing Serb sovereignty over the province, which, however, is expected to be granted sweeping autonomy.
An interim international authority will supervise the running of Kosovo and the establishment of new democratic institutions and elections, return of the refugees, and the rebuilding of the province.
In the interim there will be new negotiations between Serb and ethnic Albanian leaders to work out a long-term political settlement.
Belgrade is reported to be concerned that the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) is not allowed to fill the vacuum left by the departure of its own troops. It has called on NATO to keep to its commitment to "demilitarize" the KLA fighters.
British Defence Ministry spokesman Day expressed confidence that such a vacuum will not appear:
"This question of a vacuum, this question of ensuring that peace and stability and security are returned to the whole of Kosovo as quickly as possible is foremost in the mind of the military commanders who are making these decisions, and I have every confidence that they will be able to ensure that there isn't a vacuum, and that the ensuing problems, which could result from a number of factors, are minimized."
The NATO allies hope that Serb implementation of the peace agreement will begin in the next days, and that the future of Kosovo will look much clearer by the time of the G7 plus Russia summit, set for Cologne on June 18.