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Yugoslav accord hailed warily

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U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke hailed an agreement with the Yugoslav president Tuesday as an apparent turning point in efforts to end the Kosovo crisis but said it was still too early to celebrate.

Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic agreed Monday to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, begin peace negotiations with separatist ethnic Albanians and allow 2,000 international observers into the troubled Serb province.

In a rare appearance on national television, Milosevic declared that the agreements "avert the danger of a military intervention against our country. Our task is to accelerate the political process and economic recovery of our country as a whole."

The breakthrough, announced Monday night by President Clinton, came after NATO authorized airstrikes if Milosevic didn't match his promises with action. Clinton said NATO had agreed to hold off on airstrikes for four days so international inspectors could verify that Milosevic has met U.N. Security Council demands to stop the violence.

"We hope this will mark a turning point in the right direction. But the proof is in compliance with U.N. resolution 1199 and with actions on the ground in Kosovo," Holbrooke said.

Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 300,000 uprooted in Kosovo - where ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the 2 million people - since Milosevic began his crackdown on separatists in February. Many refugees are living outdoors after Serb forces burned their houses, and aid officials fear a humanitarian disaster with winter approaching.

After a meeting with the Yugoslav leader Tuesday, Holbrooke warned that "we're not out of the emergency yet." He said it's up to Milosevic's government to prove its commitment to the agreement.

"I cannot stress too highly how deeply concerned we are about what happened in the past few months in Kosovo . . . the unnecessary horror of it," Holbrooke said.

Before his address, Milosevic issued a statement saying the agreement demonstrated his government's commitment to the peace process but also reflected his position that the demands are unwarranted.

Milosevic has insisted the crisis was an internal matter in which foreign powers should play no role. The Serbs have been intent on crushing the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

NATO agreed early Tuesday on the final step needed to authorize airstrikes. The 16-nation alliance set a four-day deadline for Milosevic to begin complying with international demands.

In Pristina, capital of Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian politician who says he speaks for the KLA said he was pleased by the NATO action but expressed skepticism that Milosevic would live up to the agreement. Adem Demaci also said he was disappointed the verification force would be unarmed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the agreement but warned Milosevic that NATO won't hesitate to act if he reneges. "We are prepared to see this thing through. We are prepared to use force if necessary," he said.

Dozens of diplomats were evacuated from Belgrade on Monday in anticipation of possible NATO airstrikes against Yugoslav military sites.

The Russian parliament voted Tuesday to send a fact-finding delegation to Kosovo. Russia has good relations with Yugoslavia and has opposed airstrikes.

While the Foreign Ministry welcomed the apparent breakthrough and said Russia would probably take part in the observation force, the Defense Ministry said Russia would give Yugoslavia military help if NATO went ahead with air-strikes.

In that case, the ministry said, Russia also would be unlikely to ratify the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States and will have "to look for possible (new) military allies to preserve the military balance."

Holbrooke, who noted that the deal will not alter existing sanctions against Yugoslavia, said the key to the accord was Milosevic's decision to allow a "verification mission" and to permit "aerial verification" by noncombat aircraft that could begin as soon as the end of the week.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will oversee the verification force.

Political negotiations with ethnic Albanians will continue in Kosovo, led by Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia.

The ethnic Albanians have insisted on independence, rather than regaining the autonomy Milosevic stripped away in 1989. But international leaders are opposed to them breaking away for fear a border change will lead to further instability in the tense Balkans.