Kosovo deadline put back

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The Independent Online
FACED BY political progress but military deadlock, leading powers last night extended their deadline for a peace deal in Kosovo until Tuesday. But the prospects of a final accord still seemed tenuous at best.

The announcement came after confused negotiations, during which the original deadline of noon yesterday slipped by. Foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group kept up the pressure for a settlement between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians, and by the end, said Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary: "We were very, very close to a political agreement."

On the military side, however, the Serbs have barely budged on allowing foreign troops on Yugoslav soil, saying only that it could be discussed after the settlement, a position rejected by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A deal on the political but not the military aspects would be like "a table top without legs," she said. We're not into endless [deadline] extensions. I would hope that [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic will wake up and smell the coffee."

A weary Mr Cook, who was up negotiating until 5am the previous morning, said that the force in Kosovo should be Nato-led. This appeared to dash hopes that a formula could be cobbled together whereby the 28,000-strong peacekeeping force could be given a UN label.

No one was concealing the difficulty of the task ahead. The situation was "terribly difficult, perhaps impossible" according to Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is over the credibility of Nato and the Contact Group. Having agreed to put back a deadline which was previously proclaimed as immutable, many diplomats admitted that the the new deadline of 3pm Paris time on Tuesday was not credible.

Most disappointed by the failure to reach a conclusion yesterday, were the Americans. US officials said that if the Albanians had accepted the political deal and the Serbs had not, Cruise missiles would have been on their way. As it was, the Kosovo Albanians were still holding out for a referendum on independence once the three-year interim period covered by the settlement expired.

If the Rambouillet talks resulted in a political deal but no agreement on a Nato force to police it, it would put the Contact Group in a difficult position. It would be hard to justify bombing, but there would be no guarantee of stability. European governments are likely to oppose missile attacks in these circumstances.

Attempts to finesse the problem could stir transatlantic difficulties. Anything short of a Nato-led force would be unacceptable to the US. Putting it under the UN would raise hackles in Congress. Though European forces are to be most of the planned K-For, without US participation both London and Paris would have reservations.