Sides Near Deal on Pullout's Timing

KUMANOVO, Macedonia -- Negotiations resumed Thursday between Yugoslav and NATO generals on a plan for evacuating Belgrade's forces from embattled Kosovo after Western officials indicated the alliance was willing to make a key compromise on the timetable for the pullout.

The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said NATO is ready to compromise with Yugoslavia over final sticking points in talks on a Serb pullout, paving the way for a halt to the allied bombing campaign.

Fischer said in Cologne, Germany, that NATO was willing to drop a sentence in the proposed withdrawal agreement which provided for a 24-hour delay between the Yugoslav pullout and the arrival of international peacekeepers.

A U.S. official said in Cologne that an agreement here "could be signed tonight'' and that NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia would be suspended within hours if the initial withdrawal of the troops is verified.

"It depends on how many troops get out of the barracks,'' the official, who declined to be identified by name, told reporters traveling with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The Yugoslavs fear the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, will exploit that delay to rush fighters and weapons into the majority Albanian province. The Kosovo crisis exploded in February 1998 when President Slobodan Milosevic launched a bloody crackdown on the secessionist rebels.

To meet the Yugoslav demand, however, NATO would have to drop its longstanding position that the bombing campaign would stop only after a substantial and verifiable withdrawal of Serb forces.

NATO fears that a premature halt to the campaign would cost the alliance its leverage with Milosevic to ensure he complies with the accord.

All-day talks at a French military base here appeared to have stalled when Yugoslav representatives left for Belgrade late in the afternoon, reportedly to consult with Milosevic's government.

To the surprise of NATO officials, however, the Yugoslavs returned after only an hour, driving back into the Macedonia border camp in their sedans. A NATO official said face-to-face talks resumed at 8:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. Moscow time).

A member of the delegation, Nebojsa Vujovic, told the state-run Tanjug news agency that Belgrade was demanding a "synchronized'' withdrawal of Serb forces and the deploying of international peacekeepers.

A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the two sides had met along the Macedonia border for more than 11 hours Wednesday, expressed "cautious optimism'' that an agreement would be concluded soon between British Lieutenant General Michael Jackson and the Yugoslavs.

Yugoslav media reported no attacks Wednesday against strategic targets outside of Kosovo, although allied planes continued striking areas where Serb-led forces were fighting KLA rebels.

Tanjug announced a Serbian police unit that had been fighting "terrorists'' in Kosovo returned to its base Wednesday in central Serbia. Tanjug gave no figure for the number of police who it said returned to Jagodina, and it was unclear whether this was a first step in the "substantial'' withdrawal that NATO has demanded.

Last month, Yugoslavia said it was withdrawing some of its estimated 40,000 forces in Kosovo but NATO said that was far from sufficient.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea spoke of early indications of Serb preparations for withdrawal but added: "I think we have to be cautious about this.''

General Walter Jertz, a NATO commander, detailed early indications of Serbian troop movement, a "change of Serb military activities in the northern and central part of Kosovo we do interpret as preparatory signs of withdrawal.''

Shea said over the past 24 hours that NATO aircraft flew 523 air missions, including 130 strike sorties and 56 aimed at degrading Yugoslavia's air defenses.

That bombing was less intense than over the past two days, when NATO had stepped up its air campaign after a first round of talks between alliance and Yugoslav military commanders stalled.

Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia, had a prewar population of 2.1 million that was 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Some 860,000 refugees have fled Kosovo since March, most of them crossing into Albania and Macedonia.

The talks at this military garrison near the Kosovo border began late Tuesday after Russia, the United States and six other leading democracies agreed on the text of a peace plan to be sent to the Security Council.

Also Wednesday, Serbia's state-run media denied Western media reports that "hundreds'' of Yugoslav troops were killed in recent B-52 carpet bombings of their positions in Kosovo. State television showed Yugoslav army Lieutenant Colonel Stojan Konjikovac saying: "It is not true that even one soldier was killed. We are all safe and sound.''

NATO said B-52s hammered two Yugoslav army battalions Sunday near Mount Pastrik on the Albanian border.