What happened to Milosevic after the massacre

Nato shifted the emphasis towards a political solution to the Kosovo crisis yesterday amid signs that Slobodan Milosevic was backing down in the angry confrontation over last week's massacre of ethnic Albanians in the Serb province.

With the alliance keeping up the threat of military action, the American head of the Kosovo verifiers defied a Serb expulsion order after a day of intensive negotiation.

William Walker, head of the international mission, remained in his office in Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, beyond the afternoon deadline for his departure - suggesting that Mr Milosevic might have opted for a quiet climbdown.

But the US maintained the pressure by insisting it wanted an explicit commitment, with the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, warning that all 750 international monitors would be pulled out unless Mr Walker was allowed to stay.

"President Milosevic must meet his obligations by complying with UN resolutions, reducing the Serb security presence, co-operating with the War Crimes Tribunal and permitting the verification mission, including Ambassador Walker, to operate unhindered," she said.

But as senior officials of the the six-nation international Contact Group prepared to meet in London today there were clear signs of reluctance to launch punitive air strikes.

"We need a new momentum, a new impetus, on the political side," said the Nato secretary-general, Javier Solana, after talks with the Norwegian foreign minister, Knut Vollebaek, who is chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The OSCE runs the verification mission.

Mr Solana again made it clear that Nato was unwilling to act as the air force for the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army. No Western country supports anything beyond autonomy for the province within a sovereign Serbia, a position which is certain to be re-stated in today's talks.

"The aim is to agree a strategy for a peaceful resolution of both the immediate crisis and Kosovo's long-standing problems," a Foreign Office official said. "But we face immense difficulties - an intractable Milosevic and an unrestrained KLA."

Belgrade saw intensive diplomatic activity, with Mr Vollebaek and two key American envoys for Kosovo trying to strike a deal to avoid Mr Walker's expulsion.

The envoys were gambling that the threat of withdrawing the entire monitoring force might be enough to make Mr Milosevic change his mind since the monitors' presence is, in effect, an assurance that Nato will not carry out threatened air strikes. During the war in Bosnia, United Nations peacekeepers were taken hostage by Bosnian Serbs. With this in mind, Nato has drawn up plans to evacuate monitors before any attack. A French-led rapid reaction force is stationed in Macedonia to evacuate the verifiers if necessary.

Mr Walker was on Monday ordered to leave Serbia after he blamed Serbs for killing 45 ethnic Albanians at Recak.

Mr Milosevic also blocked the entry of Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the Hague war crimes tribunal, but invited forensic experts from Finland to take part in the investigation of the deaths. Five of them began work yesterday at the morgue in Pristina.

As tensions rose, Yugoslav security forces swept through villages in the north of Kosovo searching for suspected guerrillas, and exchanged fire near the village of Shipolje.

Detentions of ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, have become an explosive issue since the massacre at the weekend, which came during a police sweep for the killers of one of their colleagues.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Walker conducted a tour of a Serb military barracks and a KLA stronghold. At Dumosh barracks north-east of Pristina, he got out of his vehicle and inspected the area outside the military compound in view of Yugoslav troops.

In Bonn, the German government made it clear that they hope to arrange a peace conference to discuss Kosovo when the Contact Group meets. Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister, is sceptical about the use of force to end the conflict.

"Remember Iraq," he said. "What Milosevic has done is awful. We are all disgusted and dismayed and we will use force if necessary but it is not just a case of using force: what is the objective of the exercise? In the light of what happened in Iraq these are massive questions.

"The use of force must be the last option."