Kosovo sees last chance for peaceful settlement

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The Independent Online
THE LEADING powers were putting the final touches to new proposals yesterday, which offer perhaps the only chance of starting negotiations for a peaceful political settlement to the crisis in Kosovo.

The plan, being refined by senior officials of the Contact Group meeting in London, calls for much greater autonomy for the Serbian-run province, including its own government and its own police, as well as a review of Kosovo's status after three years. This last provision is an attempt to bridge the irreconcilable difference between the ethnic Albanians' demand for independence, and the refusal of President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade to grant it.

After yesterday's talks, chaired by the political director at the Foreign Office, Emyr Jones Parry, the aim is to hold preliminary talks with both sides. If the proposals are not rejected, Ministers from the six countries - Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and the United States - could meet within days to issue formal invitations to a Kosovo conference. The alternative is renewed full-scale fighting in spring, in only eight to 10 weeks.

Failure of this could leave a reluctant Nato with no option than to use force to halt the latest bout of repression against the ethnic Albanians, 90 per cent of Kosovo's population.

Though he has grudgingly frozen the expulsion order against the head monitor at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, William Walker, and allowed Finnish pathologists to perform autopsies on the 45 ethnic Albanian victims of last Friday's alleged massacre, Mr Milosevic did not yield to Nato's demand to reduce the army and police presence in Kosovo to the level of a year ago. Meanwhile, Louise Arbour, the chief UN war crimes prosecutor, is still refused entry to the province.

Albanians are divided between the elected political leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, which advocates a peaceful path to independence, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which for 12 months has carried the military fight to the Yugoslavs.

KLA strategy does seem to be to goad President Milosevic into brutal repression that will leave the West with no option but to use force against him.

Just as the officials sat down at the Foreign Office, Serbia said five elderly Serbian civilians had been kidnapped by KLA fighters during the night.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said military action had to be "in support of a clear political goal". To an extent, Contact Group hands are tied by Russia's rejection of air strikes against Belgrade, which it warns might detonate a wider Balkans war. Although air strikes are unlikely, the West is keeping the threat alive. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said: "Force is the only language he [Mr Milosevic] appears to understand."

Nato's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark,insisted the lifting of the expulsion order against Mr Walker was not enough. He said it was a "half compromise" that only solved a problem Mr Milosevic had created himself.