Furious Nato breaks off talks

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THE KOSOVO peace plan was in disarray early this morning after Nato broke off the talks, accusing the Serbians of failing to abide by the Belgrade agreement. The Serbs had refused to countenance a Nato force on Kosovo soil.

Lt-Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the commander of Nato's Kosovo force, ended talks with Serbian military commanders after claiming that their proposal for the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province did not guarantee the safe return of refugees or the total withdrawal of Serb forces as demanded under the Belgrade agreement.

In a statement made outside the large tent where the talks had raged - on and off - all weekend, Lt-Gen Jackson said, "Nato therefore has no alternative but to continue and intensify the air campaign until such time as the Yugoslav side are prepared to agree to implement the agreement fully and without ambiguity. We are prepared to meet with the Yugoslav delegation as necessary to achieve that."

Nato officials said that the talks can only resume if the Serbs change their position. Belgrade, meanwhile, insisted that foreign troops would only be allowed into Kosovo if their despatch was backed by a UN resolution. The Serb generals were reported to be making an immediate return to Kosovo.

Signs that the deal that could restore peace and sanity to Kosovo was in serious trouble became apparent as a sequence of Serbian delays blighted the second day of talks. Sunday's talks, inside a cavernous army tent at an airfield in Macedonia, had broken off after 10 hours in the early evening to allow the Serbs to consult with Belgrade. They were due to resume at 9pm (1900 GMT), but three hours after that the Serbs asked for an extension to the interval. The sticking point appeared to be the Serbs' refusal to accept the terms for Nato troops entering Kosovo.

As Sunday night became the early hours of Monday, the talks between Nato generals and their Yugoslav counterparts resumed for a third time with growing signs of Nato impatience.

Just as the night filled with speculation of a complete break-down, the Serb generals returned to the negotiating table - and the threat of intensified bombing if they did not agree Nato's terms. But within an hour, the talks had broken down.

The tense end to the weekend was in stark contrast to the optimistic mood when the talks began on Saturday at Blace, Macedonia. One Western official reported at the end of that day "encouraging and progressive talks".

Yesterday, however, expectations of a quick signature to the withdrawal plan were wrecked. Nato accused the Serb delegation of acting in "bad faith" and of trying to alter the conditions of the deal ratified by Belgrade.

Nato planes continued to attack Serbia's province of Kosovo while the Serbs haggled over the timing of the end of the bombing and Nato's insistence on a seven-day deadline for getting all Serb forces out of Kosovo. Belgrade insists that no Nato troops should go into Kosovo until all the Serb troops have come out. The Serbs also balked at Nato's demand for a 30km demilitarised "buffer" zone inside Serbia to prevent its heavy artillery striking at alliance forces.

While the generals were negotiating, there was no sign of peace on the ground. Serb forces pounded Kosovo Liberation Army positions, some inside Albania, and Nato continued its air strikes, including a massive bombardment close to Morini on the Albanian-Kosovo border. UN officials began evacuating the town of Krume, north-west of Morini, after it was battered by Serb shells late Saturday night.