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Troop Withdrawal from Kosovo Lifts Threat of NATO Airstrikes

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
POLUZE, Yugoslavia

Several thousand Yugoslav Interior Ministry troops packed their gear and boarded buses heading out of the embattled province of Kosovo Monday, marking the first step in what the government promised would be a total withdrawal of 4,500 troops before Tuesday's NATO deadline.

The withdrawals, if carried out, would put Yugoslavia substantially in compliance with demands that it remove a large number of its forces from Kosovo by that day and would lift the immediate threat of punitive NATO airstrikes. Also Tuesday, NATO ambassadors were to meet in Brussels to assess whether Yugoslavia had met the alliance's demands, but there was growing reluctance among some European allies for proceeding with military action, according to NATO diplomats.

NATO officials said the pullout was agreed to by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his army chief of staff, Col. Gen. Momcilo Perisic, after a marathon negotiating session in Belgrade Saturday evening and Sunday morning with top NATO commanders. Almost every unit was fought over in the talks, but, in the end, Milosevic pledged to withdraw 4,500 Interior Ministry police troops and to order two-thirds of the Yugoslav army units deployed in the field back into their military garrisons.

"Milosevic got the message" that NATO would carry out airstrikes if he refused to order the withdrawals, a senior NATO officer said. "The intent is to break the pattern of repression, provocation and violence" that has claimed more than 800 lives and forced more than 300,000 people from their homes in Kosovo during the past eight months.

Evidence of the pullout was abundant Monday in the central region of Drenica, where many roadside bunkers had been dismantled and hundreds of troops were waiting to be picked up.

As of 2 a.m. Tuesday, a U.S. diplomat said that as many as 4,000 troops had apparently left the province but that monitors would seek to verify that number after dawn.