Albanians sign and call Serbian bluff

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The Independent Online
IN THE first big breakthrough at the Kosovo peace talks, the ethnic Albanian delegation yesterday agreed to sign the deal drawn up by international mediators - thus confronting President Slobodan Milosevic with the threat of Nato air strikes if he does not follow suit.

In a letter to the French and British co-chairmen at the start of the second round of negotiations in Paris, Hashim Thaqi, head of the Albanian delegation, said the peace plan "offers a chance and a perspective for Kosovo and its people". He made no mention of the earlier Albanian insistence on a guarantee of ultimate independence for the Serbian-ruled province.

As fierce fighting continued in northern Kosovo, the Albanian move was welcomed in the West. President Bill Clinton declared himself "very, very pleased" and warned that if Mr Milosevic continued to prevaricate, the allies would have "little option" but to bomb Yugoslav military targets.

According to the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, chairing the conference with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, Yugoslavia "has its back against the wall". The choice for Belgrade, he said, was between isolation and peace.

For the moment, the Serbs seem to have chosen the former. "What agreement? Such an agreement doesn't exist," responded Milan Milutinovic, the Serbian President, to the Albanian decision.

He left open the possibility that Belgrade might go along with the political part of the proposals, granting Kosovo wide autonomy for a three-year transitional period. But, Mr Milutinovic indicated, it remains flatly opposed to the military annex calling for up to 28,000 Nato peacekeepers on Yugoslav soil.

The stage is set for a showdown between Mr Milosevic and the West. Will he bow before the threat of air strikes? Or will he hold out, confident that the combination of partial concessions and lack of Western resolve will let him cling to Kosovo yet avoid bombing?

The answer should come relatively quickly. Armed with the Albanian endorsement of the deal, which could be translated into formal signature today, British diplomats indicated they expected the conference to be wrapped up, one way or another, this week.

None of the Contact group - Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Russia - is ready to tolerate a repeat of last month's exercise at Rambouillet, where 17 days of negotiation yielded a draft agreement signed by no one.

Beyond that, however, the divisions are only too evident. Washington remains keen on bombing, but even its most loyal European ally, Britain, has misgivings. France and Italy will take even more convincing, while Russia is adamantly opposed to strikes against its traditional fellow- Slavs and Orthodox Christians.

If Mr Milosevic signs up to the political agreement but quibbles over the make-up of an international force, bombing would be even more problematic. But after so many threats,for Nato to back down at that stage would play havoc with the credibility of the alliance.

Meanwhile the Yugoslav army announced last night that obligatory military service of one year would be extended by a month, due to increased international pressure on the country "and the threat of military intervention".