Kosovo talks fail to break deadlock

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DESPITE MORE than seven hours of talks in a "very candid atmosphere", the American envoy Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia to agree to a two-part deal to end the Kosovo conflict with the help of a Nato peace-keeping force.

"There has been no change in the Yugoslav position during the day," Mr Holbrooke said last night after the talks in Belgrade. Mr Milosevic again expressed his opposition to the dispatch of Nato troops.

Yugoslav forces were meanwhile continuing their operations against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), burning houses and sending hundreds of villagers fleeing into the hills close to the border with Macedonia.

Mr Holbrooke, who was accompanied at the talks by Chris Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia, expressed concern about the fighting, but added that while "reprehensible", it would not "be disabling to the peace process" due to resume in France on Monday. Mr Holbrooke said he planned to leave Belgrade today without meeting Mr Milosevic again.

Skirmishes between the KLA and Serbian police were also reported yesterday south-west and north of Pristina. At least one policeman was reported wounded in clashes near the village of Orlate, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is in charge of the international monitoring mission in Kosovo.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is planning to evacuate women and children from the village of Kotlina, which monitors say was seriously damaged in a Serb offensive on Tuesday. "The men are not leaving the village, they want to stay behind," an OSCE official said, although the Yugoslav Army has given permission for the evacuation.

The OSCE is trying to establish contact with around seven Albanians still apparently being held for questioning by Serbian police units who swept through the village of Ivaja on Tuesday and rounded up more than 100 men. "The situation is essentially deteriorating rather than improving ahead of the resumption of peace talks," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Geneva.

Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal, said she expected the monitors to help in accounting for deaths and disappearances in Kosovo. "We are looking to OSCE verifiers to provide us with an account of their observations on all matters that may fall within our jurisdiction, historical or ongoing," she said yesterday.

A procession of foreign politicians are due in Belgrade for talks with Mr Milosevic this week. Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, "will be carrying a strong message from Moscow to make progress", said Mr Holbrooke.

In theory, Mr Milosevic and his Albanian enemies must agree to the accord by 15 March. But the KLA seems increasingly reluctant to sign the deal. Pleurat Sejdiu, the KLA representative in London, said the rebels would "not sign up while the war is going on in Kosovo" and there are "attacks on our villages".