Kosovo edges towards talks

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ONE OF the Kosovo Liberation Army's commanders sat under the shade of a tree this week, his Kalashnikov rifle resting on his crossed legs, and offered the first glimmer of hope for a negotiated end to the war in Serbia's southern province.

Commander Besniku, a nom de guerre meaning "faithful", insisted the armed struggle had not been weakened by Serbia's recent victories, but said international proposals based on autonomy might be acceptable "for the time being".

Perhaps he was getting closer to the position of the ethnic Albanian civilian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, who yesterday named a team for peace talks to try to end the Kosovo war and called on Serb authorities to negotiate. "We need a climate for negotiations to protect our people," Mr Rugova told a news conference in Pristina.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, congratulated Mr Rugova and called on the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to quickly draft plans for "genuine self-administration in Kosovo."

The ethnic Albanian newspaper Koha Ditore, known to have close links to KLA, said it received a KLA fax naming Adem Demaqi as its representative for talks with Belgrade.

Mr Demaqi is a legendary figure among Albanians. His 28 years in Serb jail have earned him a reputation as the "the Nelson Mandela of Kosovo".

For months the international community, led by the United States, has been trying to reach out to the KLA and bring the rebels into negotiations with the Serb authorities.

Besniku, a lawyer and human rights campaigner before he took up arms, was one of those contacted by the American envoy Christopher Hill.

"It depends what kind of autonomy," he said. "Not the kind they can take away whenever they want. I would accept for the time being the kind of autonomy which would give us control."

But no one is expecting a rapid end to the war. Yesterday, Serbian forces were reported to be "mopping up" the remaining pockets of Albanian resistance around the south-western village of Junik, where more than 1,000 civilians are trapped by the fighting. The EU has condemned the Serb assault.

Besniku's own command post is a charred ruin, but the Serb forces have left after occupying it briefly and his troops, smartly dressed in clean uniforms, appeared motivated. "My family fought the Serbs in the rebellions of 1918 and 1944," one of the KLA volunteers said. "I have been in the KLA for four years and we are not going to stop now."

Western diplomats say their first problem in dealing with the KLA is to know who has authority in what remains a secretive organisation. One official said: "Even if the ones we're talking to sign up to a deal we expect a substantial faction will keep on fighting."

The KLA has also begun moves to co-ordinate its actions with those of the mainstream ethnic Albanian political parties. "This is vital if Kosovo is not going to turn into Afghanistan," said Mahmud Bakalli, the province's ethnic-Albanian administrator under Yugoslavia's former president Tito, and now an influential voice in the campaign for independence.

Mr Bakalli said only an international peace-keeping force could bring about a negotiated settlement. "It is urgent we get an outside force here," he said. "The Serbs will never succeed in ending resistance; there will be an everlasting fire, which will threaten the whole region."