Assault on the Serbs: Italians lead calls for talks to resume

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The Independent Online
DEEP DIVISIONS emerged among Europe's leaders yesterday as Italy called for a renewed search for a diplomatic settlement with Belgrade.

Massimo D'Alema, the Italian Prime Minister, said the first wave of bombing, on Wednesday night, had halted the Serb offensive in Kosovo, reopening the path towards a negotiated settlement. "The scenario is opening for the initiative to return to the political track," Mr D'Alema said at the European Union summit in Berlin. "I think, therefore, that the time for politics and diplomacy to return is approaching."

The Italian premier also praised a Russian proposal for a meeting of the six-nation contact group in Moscow, an idea that elicited a cool response from other big Nato states.

Mr D'Alema's tone contrasted with that of Tony Blair, who said diplomacy could only resume if Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, agreed to "withdraw his troops, stop repression and start operating on a civilised basis".

Although the bombing raids had been having "an impact" on the offensive mounted by Serb forces, Mr Blair said talks would start only when Mr Milosevic agreed to "abide by the agreements he entered into". However the Prime Minister rejected the idea of a split in the alliance, adding that "Nato is solid and united".

Asked if the Italian prime minister's remarks did not show cracks emerging in the alliance on only the second day of bombing, the US National security Adviser Sandy Berger said in Washington: "Nato is an extraordinary alliance with many members. I believe they continue to accept its mission and accept its purposes."

He added that Mr d'Alema's remarks apparently proceeded from his belief that the fighting in Kosovo had ended. "That is not correct," he said.

The United States pledged that air attacks would continue for as long as it took to achieve the military objectives, but there was still little clarity about exactly what those were. In a publicity blitz designed to follow up President Clinton's address to the nation the previous evening and the bare military reports from the Pentagon, a succession of Administration officials, from the President down, appeared on television to hail the first night of Nato strikes and justify their aims.

Mr Clinton made humanitarian concerns paramount. "Our purpose here," he told reporters, "is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe". In an attempt to make the travails of a small Balkan province more accessible to Middle America, Mr Clinton had used a brightly coloured map, and said that the distance between Kosovo and Italy was less than that between Washington and New York. Explaining the need for US involvement, he argued for America's continued role in Europe and warned of the risk that the violence in Kosovo could be the trigger for a much wider conflict. "Let a fire burn here in this area and the flames could spread."

As Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, flew back to Berlin for the EU summit after an emergency debate in the House of Commons, he made clear to officials that there would be no let-up in the bombing. "We see no evidence that Milosevic has done the things that he needs to do," said a Foreign Office source. A Downing Street spokesman said: "Milosevic has got to reduce his troops to the levels in October, and cease the repression."

The comments by Mr d'Alema reflect wider reservations among EU states, several of which feel air strikes should cease after a short campaign, giving Mr Milosevic a chance to back down.

Imre Karacs,

Stephen Castle,

Colin Brown

and Mary Dejevsky