Bowing to the wishes of their people and threatened by a cutoff of money from moderate backers in Europe and America, ethnic Albanian rebels accepted a US-brokered peace plan for Kosovo that denies them independence from Serbia.
The decision averted a major diplomatic disaster for the United States and its partners - France, Britain, Italy, Germany, and Russia - who immediately turned their attention to pressuring Serbian negotiators to accept the plan for self-rule for Kosovo.
But there was no sign that Belgrade was ready to drop objections to key provisions, including the deployment of 28,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Serbia.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's intransigence poses a fresh test for transatlantic relations. The US faces the tough task of persuading European allies to resurrect a NATO airstrike threat against the Serbian leader unless he changes his mind.
"I would encourage Mr. Milosevic to agree to the terms as well so we can avoid further conflict and bloodshed," President Clinton urged. "If he shows intransigence and aggression, I think that from our point of view we would have little option" except to launch NATO airstrikes.
State Department officials say they believe that now the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has accepted the plan, the US can rebuild "a critical mass" of allied support for airstrikes. "The reality is that there is not that much work to do with the allies," says one official. But another warns that some allies remain deeply opposed to NATO action without a mandate from the United Nations. "The Germans are not with us," he contends.
Dejan Anastijevic, journalist for the respected weekly Belgrade magazine Vreme, thinks that Milosevic does not want airstrikes because "it's not certain that the political system would survive.... He really wants to politically profit. He won't do so from bombing. He wants a bigger carrot."
The KLA decision represents a retreat from a demand for independence for Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians, who have endured repression since Milosevic withdrew the province's autonomy in 1989. More than 2,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanian civilians, have died since fighting erupted a year ago. Violence continued to flare yesterday in Kosovo.
In the letter to Ms. Albright, Hashim Thaci, chief of the KLA's political wing, made clear that the rebels would hold the Clinton administration to its pledges not to make changes in the plan to win Milosevic's approval. "We expect your help and the help of the US in the future," Mr. Thaci says. "The people of Kosovo are and will continue to be allies of the US."
The US and its partners had threatened to retaliate against the KLA, including interdicting its funds and arms supplies, if it had refused to accept the peace plan.
But a source close to the KLA leadership says the biggest influence in the rebels' decision to sign was the massive support the plan commands among ordinary ethnic Albanians, some 400,000 of whom have been left homeless by the fighting. "The majority of Albanians wanted this as they see it as a big step toward independence," he says.
He also says that many ethnic Albanians in Western Europe and the US also favor the plan and had threatened to stop donating millions of dollars on which the KLA depends for arms purchases if the rebels had rejected it. "They [the KLA] would have suffered because they were offered a chance for peace and they did not take it," he explains.
Some hard-line rebels object to provisions requiring the KLA to disarm and disband within six months. But moderates say that with NATO troops on the ground, Belgrade will lose total control of the province and it will be only a question of time before it wins independence.
Under the peace plan, hammered out over 17 days in a first round of talks in Rambouillet, France, last month, Kosovo would have its own government, judiciary, and police. After three years, an international conference would consider its future status, taking into consideration the results of a popular referendum in which independence would be an option on which ballots could be cast.
*Justin Brown contributed to this report from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.