Inside a sealed chateau, hostile delegations from Kosovo talk peace in separate rooms

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The Independent Online
WITH THE dignitaries departed and ceremonial done, the United States chief mediator, Christopher Hill, received some encouraging early signals as Serbs and ethnic Albanians yesterday started their pressure- cooker negotiations for a peace settlement in Kosovo in earnest.

To talk of a full-scale "conference" is premature. The contacts between the two profoundly hostile delegations, inside a former royal chateau at Rambouillet near Paris sealed from the world by hundreds of French security police, are following the "proximity talks" format, whereby the protagonists gather in separate rooms and Mr Hill shuttles between them conveying their views.

But for all the bitterness born of a savage year-long war which has taken 2,000 lives, the two sides have accepted the 10 principles on which the six-nation Contact Group of leading powers virtually ordered them. This means, Western diplomats said, that Belgrade acknowledges that the province, now part of Serbia, must be granted far greater autonomy.

But it also implies that - in contrast to the demands chanted by 200- odd demonstrators carrying red and black Albanian flags through the streets of Rambouillet - the Kosovo Albanians accept they will not obtain the independence from Yugoslavia they are seeking, at least during the three years the proposed agreement will run.

The 13 Serb/Yugoslav negotiators and 17 Kosovo Albanians have until Saturday to reach broad agreement on the plan drawn up by Mr Hill. If all goes well, they will be allowed a second week to wrap up the details. The target completion date is 21 February, after which up to 30,000 Nato troops, 8,000 of them British, will be deployed to keep the peace.

The outward mood at least seems to have changed since Saturday when the formal opening of proceedings by the French President ,Jacques Chirac, was delayed three hours because of the refusal of the Serb authorities to allow five representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to even leave Pristina for Paris.

Now, however, all participants are not only present but have also managed something unprecedented: a joint declaration, "condemning in the strongest terms" the bombing which killed three people in the province's capital on Saturday evening, presumably in an attempt to derail the Rambouillet talks. Never before have Serbs and ethnic Albanians managed to find such a common voice.

The Hill plan, of which a final draft was being examined by the two sides yesterday, is "80 per cent non-negotiable," according to US officials. But the outstanding points at issue are crucial. They include the exact status of a more autonomous Kosovo, what say - if any - Belgrade will retain over its affairs, and the scope of the Nato peacekeeping operation.

The package calls for a drastic reduction in Yugoslav security troops in Kosovo from the current 10,000, and the disbanding of the KLA with three months. Within nine months, and under strict international supervision, elections will be held for a new Kosovo assembly. However, vast power will be vested in the head of the international monitoring force, meaning that like Bosnia, Kosovo will become a Western protectorate in all but name.

t Thousands marched yesterday behind a cortege of tractors carrying the bodies of nine village men slain last month in a police raid on the village of Racak. In all, 25 ethnic Albanians and one Serb policemen died. Up to 5,000 people marched behind the coffins.