Make or break day for peace

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TOP REPRESENTATIVES of the West and Russia sat down with President Slobodan Milosevic last night for talks that probably offer a last, but far from guaranteed, chance of a peaceful solution to the Kosovo crisis.

"This is a historic day for Yugoslavia," Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish President, declared as he arrived in Belgrade yesterday. He and Viktor Chernomyrdin had come "with a peace plan and an offer for peace, that could end the two-month-old conflict and allow post-war rebuilding of the region to begin".

Underlining the urgency of their quest was a dramatic report to the United Nations Security Council last night by UN officials, just back from Kosovo, on the humanitarian catastrophe in the province, providing the most authoritative account yet of the systematic ethnic cleansing carried out by the Serbs, amid a "rampage of killing, burning ... vendetta and terror". Council delegates were said to have been left in "profound shock" by the details set out before them.

Despite the peace mission, Nato granted no let-up in its campaign of air strikes, while its leaders moved to keep the ground-war option open.

Hours before the envoys arrived in Belgrade, allied warplanes attacked targets in and around the city, adding to the misery of a population mostly deprived of power, fuel, and sometimes water.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton approved the dispatch of 7,000 US ground troops to join in the enlarged peacekeeping force. Today, Mr Clinton meets his military staff to discuss the future of the war, including the possibility of an invasion of Kosovo, William Cohen, the Defense Secretary said.

But the difficulty of the task facing the two peace envoys was apparent from the frantic diplomacy in Bonn that preceded their arrival, a round- the-clock negotiating marathon that produced agreement between the West and Russia - but whose key provisions were being cast into doubt even before the envoys' plane touched down in Belgrade.

The scheme essentially calls for acceptance of the plan by Yugoslavia, including detailed provisions for the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, followed by a resolution of the UN Security Council, that would lead to a suspension of the Nato bombings. The dealcreated "a significant chance of a political settlement", Jacques Chirac, the French President, said last night.

But uncertainty surrounded several key elements of the plan, above all the precise make-up of the peacekeeping force. Muddying matters further was Mr Chernomyrdin's assertion that there would be separate Russian and Nato contingents under separate command - a formula that could lead to the de facto partition of Kosovo, which the West categorically rules out.

But Washington retorted that Russian participation in the force was still "an open question", while Strobe Talbott, the deputy Secretary of State who had spent 24 hours locked in talks with Mr Ahtisaari and Mr Chernomyrdin in Bonn, pointedly refused to answer questions on the subject. "We are all against partition," was all he would say.

Even so, all sides declared that enough progress had been achieved in Bonn to justify a joint mission that could well be the last chance to avert further escalation of the air strikes and, possibly, a ground invasion of Kosovo. The ball, they insisted to a man, was now in Mr Milosevic's court.

But even if the fragile common front between Russia and the West holds, there seemed small chance of an early agreement by Mr Milosevic, a master of procrastination and exploiting divisions among his opponents.

Last night the gap between Belgrade and the international community looked almost as wide as ever. While the allies demand a total withdrawal of all Serb forces, to be replaced by a force under the technical aegis of the UN, but dominated by heavily armed Nato troops under Nato command. Mr Milosevic seems ready to accept at best a force without soldiers from countries which have taken part in the bombing, and is seeking to keep many thousand Serb troops in Kosovo after a settlement.

Speaking during a visit to Macedonia yesterday, General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander, claimed that the Yugoslav army had suffered "great losses" in the last few days. "It should be obvious to him he cannot prevail," said General Clark, in Skopje to discuss Nato's plans to increase the number of ground troops in Macedonia from 16,000 to 30,000.

His remarks seemed tacit confirmation of a new trend emerging in the war, whereby Kosovo Liberation Army guerillas are infiltrating back into the province to engage Serb units - thus forcing them out of cover where they become easier targets for Nato aircraft.

But General Clark's claim was contradicted by General Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Kosovo-based Yugoslav Third Army, who told a local newspaper that his 180,000-strong force had suffered what he called "minimal casualties" of about 1,800.

It was not clear how long the Belgrade talks would last, but Mr Chernomyrdin indicated they would only be a beginning, at which he and Mr Ahtisaari would set out the proposals to Mr Milosevic. The Finnish President was expected to fly back to Cologne today to report to the EU summit on Belgrade's reaction to the plan.