Kosovo peace talks close to collapse

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THE KOSOVO peace conference was close to collapsing last night as the Serbs insisted they would not negotiate unless ethnic Albanian Kosovars signed a contested declaration.

Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, announced an emergency mission to Paris today. Her presence in France means there will be a full-scale ministerial meeting of the six world powers in the Contact Group to decide whether to go ahead with a second week of talks. Importantly, Mrs Albright will also deliver a blunt message to the Serbs that unless they relent, they face the certainty of Nato bombing.

At a press conference in Paris yesterday, the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, declared flatly there would be no further progress unless the Albanians, like Belgrade, accepted the set of 10 principles forming a basis for the talks and which they are resisting because they contain no provision for a future referendum on independence for Kosovo, currently a province of Serbia.

Ignoring Western complaints that Belgrade's stalling has reduced the conference to a deadlock, Mr Milutinovic, an ally of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, could not have been more blunt: "If they sign, we will continue the negotiations. If not, no negotiations. We cannot start building a house from the roof and then reach the foundations and realise it will fall down." He accused the West of impeding the talks, and of bias towards the Albanian position. But there would be no walkout. "Why should we leave? We are sitting, we are waiting. We accept the Contact Group principles."

His words amounted to a direct challenge to Robin Cook, Britain's Foreign Secretary, who placed the blame for the deadlock squarely on the Serb side, accusing Belgrade of "time wasting" by insisting the Albanians sign up to principles which, he said, both sides had in practice already agreed to by even attending the conference.

The Serbs are desperately keen on formal ratification of the document because it foresees Kosovo remaining part of the existing Yugoslavia, albeit with vastly increased autonomy, including its own police force, elected assembly and president. That, however, is precisely why the Albanians will not sign it. Yesterday, a key aide of Ibrahim Rugova, their political leader, insisted there had to be a specific provision for a referendum.

With both sides trading blame for the stalemate, omens for success in Rambouillet are looking bleak. Nor are matters helped by latent divisions within the Contact Group - comprising France, Britain, Italy, Germany, the US and Russia - which could explode into the open if the conference does break down.

While Washington is adamant there must be air strikes against Belgrade if its obduracy blocks any deal, the Russians are equally adamantly opposed. Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, has also expressed his country's misgivings about any unilateral use of force by Nato.

The stand-off over principles has meant that the mediators at Rambouillet, led by the US diplomat Christopher Hill, have hardly embarked on detailed bargaining over Kosovo's autonomy. During her meetings with the two sides, Mrs Albright will also spell out to Serbs and Albanians the key annexe to the proposed accord, calling for a drastic reduction in Yugoslav troop strength in Kosovo. This will reportedly fall from about 14,000 today to only 1,500, with the sole task of guarding the province's external borders.