London, 9 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Defense Secretary George Robertson says he's both "cautious and hopeful" the conflict in Kosovo may be nearing its conclusion.
Robertson was commenting today on discussions between NATO and Yugoslav army commanders in Macedonia on a technical military agreement that aims to set a timetable for the pull-out of 40,000 Serb forces in Kosovo. He welcomed the fact the talks have made "progress" but cautioned against over-optimism.
Foreign ministers of the G-7 leading industrial democracies plus Russia agreed yesterday on the text of a draft U.N. Security Council Resolution aimed at ending the conflict.
Robertson said the draft meets NATO's five conditions for ending the conflict. He noted it includes a call for an end to the ethnic violence in Kosovo, the removal of all Serb forces and the deployment of an international security force with NATO at its core.
It also calls for the safe return of all the Kosovar Albanian refugees and a long-term political settlement for the Balkan region.
He said: "That is precisely what NATO said it wanted and that is precisely what the U.N. appears to be on the point of endorsing."
Robertson commended Russian officials for playing what he called a constructive role in building the peace:
"I want particularly to pay tribute to the efforts made by the Russian government in recent weeks. Mr. (Viktor) Chernomyrdin, Mr. (Igor) Ivanov, and President (Boris) Yeltsin himself have all played a very constructive role in building the peace, and their work has been invaluable, and we are very grateful to them."
General Mike Jackson, the British commander of NATO's Kosovo implementation force, spent last night and this morning working on military details of the proposed Serb troop withdrawal from Kosovo and the planned entry of the NATO force, known as KFOR.
Robertson said the talks have been "constructive" and unlike what he called the Serb "foot-dragging, nit-picking and time-wasting" which characterised earlier talks on Sunday. Those talks stalled amid the military refusal to implement a peace pact endorsed by Belgrade.
Over the past 24 hours, the Yugoslav military commanders are reported to have sought clarification on the practicalities of implementing the Serb withdrawal and the entry of KFOR.
Robertson said: "Whether these are efforts by the Serbs to overcome genuine practical difficulties and security fears or whether they are just yet more delaying tactics remains to be seen."
There are 16,700 KFOR troops in Macedonia from Britain (5,700), Germany (4,200), France (3,000), Italy (2,300) and the US (500).
Robertson said any attempt by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "roll back" on the peace deal that he struck with the EU and Russian special envoys on Kosovo will be "futile."
But he also said the peace effort cannot move forward until there is agreement on the precise terms and conditions that "we know from bitter experience are required if any deal is to stick."
While expressing hope the agreement will be signed "soon", he cautioned the outside world "to wait until it has been signed and the Serb troops are actually withdrawing ..."
British military spokesman, Admiral Ian Garnett, meanwhile, has confirmed reports that NATO aircraft hit a military assembly area in Kosovo yesterday. Belgrade says the raid may have caused hundreds of casualties.
"NATO aircraft did attack an assembly area in the southern area of Kosovo yesterday. The targets in the assembly area were Serb forces in the open. There have been reports of hundreds of casualties, but quite frankly we can't verify them. We don't know exactly how many casualties, and it would be, I think, unwise to guess."
He said NATO planes flew more than 650 sorties in the past 24 hours ending this morning, more than 200 of which were attack sorties.
Robertson declined to answer directly a question about whether NATO would scale down its bombing campaign during the military talks in Macedonia. But he said NATO commanders will "obviously" take into account how close they are to reaching a resolution.