Monitors ready to abandon Kosovo

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The Independent Online
FEARS ARE growing that deepening conflict in the Serbian province of Kosovo will force the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to withdraw, even before its mission there has been properly established.

The OSCE chairman, the Polish Foreign Minister, Bronislaw Geremek, said a "spiral of violence" was threatening any hope of peaceful solution. "If the bloodshed and violence escalate, the OSCE would have to reconsider the forms of its activities in Kosovo," he said.

The province was quiet for the first time yesterday after a truce brokered by the unarmed OSCE verifiers ended four days of fighting between ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav security forces.

Mr Geremek's statement was drawn up on Sunday, as the fighting continued, but OSCE officials said concerns remained that the unarmed monitors will soon be trapped in the middle of a full-scale civil war. "A local ceasefire doesn't change the underlying situation," one official said, adding that the option of pulling out was being keptunder review.

A Western diplomat said Mr Geremek was "quite pessimistic" about the Kosovo mission's chances of success and wanted to highlight the option of withdrawal. The OSCE's chairman has the authority and mandate unilaterally to order a withdrawal of all personnel from Serbia if the situation deteriorates.

The 54-nation council ofOSCE member-states would probably not be able to convene in time to decide, although there would be consultations among the six-nation Contact Group of Britain, the US, Russia, France, Germany and Italy.

Under the terms of a deal agreed in October by the US envoy Richard Holbrooke and President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, 2,000 OSCE observers are allowed to work in the province. However, fewer than 700 are in place.

The unarmed personnel are there to verify that both sides are keeping to the terms of UN resolutions which demand that both sides pull back their forces and observe a ceasefire.

The absence of a lasting political settlement for Kosovo has seen the OSCE mission being drawn into an increasingly active role. The head of the mission, the ambassador William Walker, spent most of Christmas Day shuttling between the two sides to try to end hostilities. At one point he called the mission "the last, best hope for peace in Kosovo".

At the height of the battle up to a hundred Yugoslav tanks and armoured vehicles were in action against KLA positions. Artillery, mortar and machine- gun fire sounded for hours across the snowy fields as columns of ethnic Albanian refugees fled.

Responsibility for the OSCE mission falls to the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Knut Vollebak, in the new year, when Norway assumes the organisation's rotating chairmanship.

He said: "The OSCE as an organisation and me personally will be judged by what we accomplish in Kosovo. "It could well be a success, but also a disaster."

Leading article, Review, page 3