KLA deal blow to peace in Kosovo

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THE KOSOVO Liberation Army appeared to dash hopes of an early end to the war in the Serb province yesterday when leaders at a secret meeting were believed to have rejected the Western-backed peace plan.

Western diplomats urged the KLA to agree to the deal and put additional pressure on the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, to consent.

Germany's Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said the rebels would be making a "historical mistake" if they rejected the plan. The European Union's foreign affairs commissioner, Hans van den Broek, was more blunt: "We need a `yes' or it will be a big mess."

The main sticking point for the KLA was the requirement that the guerrillas hand over their weapons and accept autonomy from Belgrade rather than independence. The separatist movement is also opposed to Russia's proposed participation in an international peace-keeping force for the province, because Russia is Serbia's close ally.

Suleyman Selimi, the KLA chief of staff, warned earlier that the rebels would not accept a compromise. "Halfway measures to independence are unacceptable unless they lead to full independence,'' he said, making a rare public appearance with other KLA leaders. They were attending a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the killing of Adem Jashari, a KLA founder and well-known nationalist leader. He died with 50 relatives in a three- day battle with Serbian forces.

The gathering of at least 500 armed and uniformed KLA fighters alongside 5,000 enthusiastic civilians was only a mile from a Serbian military base in the province.

At recent Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet, France, the KLA said it could not sign a deal before consulting soldiers and local people. Yesterday, fighting continued on Kosovo's southern border, with Yugoslav forces bombarding villages near the town of Kacanik. The army prevented international observers from reaching the villages. The ethnic Albanian-run Kosovo Information Centre said Serb forces also attacked villages in the northern Podujevo area for a second straight day, burning at least eight Albanian houses.