Deal over Kosovo agreed in principle

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AFTER A 17-day negotiating marathon, Serbs and ethnic Albanians agreed in principle last night on broad autonomy for Kosovo, but put off the signature of any peace deal for at least three weeks.

An hour after the expiry of the mid-afternoon deadline for a deal at the Rambouillet conference near Paris, the Albanians bowed to intense American pressure and conditionally accepted the peace package drawn up by the Contact group of leading powers. Soon afterwards, Belgrade followed suit, saving the talks from what had seemed certain to be total failure.

"We have done a lot here," Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary and co-chairman of the talks said. "But this is only the end of phase one of the process." Phase two will consist of a so-called "peace implementation conference" in France, starting on 15 March. "We expect signature of the accord at or before that date," Mr Cook said. "This is a good deal for both sides, and they would be wise to take it."

But major uncertainties remained. Hours before the six-nation group issued a statement announcing the new round of talks and demanding another ceasefire in the year-long war, fighting flared up in Kosovo itself. Since Sunday alone, 9,000 more people have been forced to flee their homes.

On the diplomatic front, too, major differences still divide the two sides, with the Serbs refusing the Nato-led peace-keeping force demanded by the United States and its allies, while the Albanians demand a guarantee of independence once the three-year interim agreement is over.

Last night the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who led the final frantic days of negotiation in person, warned that Belgrade still faced the threat of allied air strikes if did not sign up to the peace deal, including the Nato peacekeepers. But, she acknowledged, it was up to the Albanians to "create this black and white situation" by signing up to the peace agreement in its entirety and without condition.

However, last night Adem Demaci, a senior ethnic Albanian leader who did not attend the Rambouillet conference, declared that the talks could not bring peace. He said the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has just appointed a hardline new supreme commander, would press its "liberation war" to the end.