Climbdown by Serbia stops strikes

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SERBIA'S PARLIAMENT last night voted overwhelmingly to send a delegation to the Kosovo peace talks at Rambouillet near Paris, but made it clear that there would be fierce resistance to Nato plans to station troops in the province to police any settlement.

The 227 to 3 majority averts the threat of Nato air strikes, and clears the way for negotiations to start as scheduled tomorrow between Belgrade and the political and military representatives of the ethnic Albanians who constitute 90 per cent of Kosovo's population.

But discussions on the draft agreement drawn up by Western mediators will be anything but plain sailing. Last night Serbian government officials said that Kosovo must remain part of Serbia - despite the fact that the plan, to all intents and purposes, removes the province from Belgrade's control.

An even greater obstacle could be the deployment of the 20,000 to 30,000 Nato force, final details of which are being worked out in national capitals and at the alliance's Brussels headquarters. As President Bill Clinton confirmed that Washington was "seriously considering" dispatching troops, and France announced it would provide 5,000 men.

Mirko Marjanovic, the Serbian Prime Minister, vowed that if Nato entered Kosovo, it would have to fight its way in. "We will defend ourselves with all available means," Mr Marjanovic warned. Those sentiments were echoed by Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the ultranationalist Radical party and an ally of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Milosevic is unlikely to go to Rambouillet, not least for fear of being served with a warrant for alleged war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. But if yesterday's TV coverage of the parliamentary session Belgrade - when criticism of him was censored from the broadcast - is any indication, he will be very much in charge of his delegates, albeit from afar.

Seeking to overcome deep misgivings in Congress over a further commitment of American troops, Mr Clinton insisted that the fighting must be halted when it could still be contained at an "acceptable cost". Otherwise, "and unless we defuse the ethnic hatred in that region, Kosovo can embroil us in a much larger conflict".

The Pentagon wants to limit the US contingent to 2,000, but the European allies would prefer double that figure, to guarantee the credibility of the intervention. It would be under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Jackson, the British commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. But to reassure US public opinion, officials point out that ultimate control of the operation would be in the hands of General Wesley Clark, the American supreme commander of allied forces in Europe.