Clinton's envoy is snubbed by Serbs

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YUGOSLAVIA again challenged the West yesterday by refusing to allow an entry visa to Bob Dole, the former US Senator, as the leading powers stepped up their efforts to nail down a peace agreement in Kosovo before renewed fighting rips the province apart.

With senior Kosovo Albanians indicating that they are ready to sign an interim peace deal before talks resume at a military base in Normandy in nine days, the West believes it at last has the opportunity to place Belgrade before a choice it has so far been able to avoid - of either signing the take-it-or-leave-it deal, or having it imposed by the force of Nato arms.

But the decision to force Mr Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate and latest in a line of high-level mediators to the region, to hold his scheduled talks with Albanian representatives in the Macedonian capital of Skopje was a clear sign that President Slobodan Milosevic has no intention of folding his hand just yet.

US officials said Mr Dole was still hopeful of crossing into Kosovo, which is a part of Serbia and therefore Yugoslavia, and was in contact with the Yugoslav consulate in Skopje. But Belgrade is known to consider him to be irredeemably biased in favour of Kosovo's Albanians.

A Serbian judge was quoted yesterday as ordering the immediate arrest of Hasim Thaqi, who emerged at the previous round of peace talks in Rambouillet, France, as a key spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army. The Contact Group peace plan, which the KLA is coming round to after much hesitation, provides forautonomy - but no guarantee of the independence demanded by both the military and political leaders of the overwhelming Albanian majority of its two million inhabitants.

As Mr Dole waited in Macedonia, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, announced an unexpected stop-over in London today, to discuss Kosovo with the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, the co-chairman of the peace talks. A once mooted visit by Mr Cook himself to Belgrade appears to have been ruled out.

Diplomats said Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy who clinched the Bosnia settlement in 1995, may travel himself to try to persuade Mr Milosevic to accept the proposed Kosovo deal - including the deployment of up to 30,000 Nato and possibly Russian peace-keepers in the province.

The urgent need for a solution was underlined yesterday with shelling by Yugoslav army tanks of the village of Nekovce, south-west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Hundreds of villagers were reported to be fleeing.

In a separate move but one that might also increase Serb/Western tensions, Carlos Westendorp, the leading international peace co-ordinator in Bosnia, removed the Serb Republic's hardline president, Nikola Poplasen, on the basis that he was obstructing implementation of the 1995 Dayton peace accord.