Nato orders Kosovo peace deal

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AS THE slaughter in Kosovo continues, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, is to travel to Yugoslavia today to deliver what amounts to an order from the great powers to President Slobodan Milosevic and ethnic Albanian leaders to sit down together and wrap up a peace deal within three weeks.

Hours after 25 Albanians were killed by Yugoslav security forces in a dawn raid on a village south of the capital, Pristina, the six-nation Contact Group issued its plan yesterday to end a year of carnage. More than 2,000 people have died and 300,000 have lost their homes, threatening conflagration across the southern Balkans.

The proposals, giving a broad measure of autonomy for Kosovo, are expected to be reinforced by a specific final warning from Nato to Mr Milosevic that he faces air strikes unless he meets the demands for Yugoslav troops to pull back, and for war crimes prosecutors to be allowed to investigate the 15 January massacre at Racak.

The scheme announced by the foreign ministers of Britain, the US, France, Germany, Italy and Russia is simple and stark - a measure of how the great powers have lost patience with a conflict that has stretched Nato's credibility as a peacekeeper, and threatens to create a humanitarian disaster if fighting resumes in the spring.

"We expect agreement in a week," Mr Cook stated flatly, a sentiment backed by Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. "We have sent the parties an unmistakable message," she said: "Get serious, showing up is not enough."

But last night it was not even clear they would show up, let alone agree a deal that satisfies either side.

The initial reaction from both Belgrade and the insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army was frosty. The latter said they would not engage in talks until a ceasefire was in place, and then only about independence.

The Yugoslav government insisted no ceasefire was possible in a war against "terrorists". Without mentiong the Contact Group proposal, it called for talks between the communities in the province, 90 per cent of whose population is Albanian.

In a blunt statement after a two-hour meeting in London yesterday, the Contact Group said it was "summoning representatives of the Yugoslav and Serbian governments and of the Kosovo ethnic Albanians" to a conference starting by 6 February at Rambouillet, near Paris, to be co-chaired by Mr Cook and his French opposite number, Hubert Vedrine. Helped by mediators, they have a week to reach basic agreement, and a week thereafter to settle the details. If this ambitious timetable holds, a deal will be in place by 20 February.

In fact, despite the lack of enthusiasm in both Pristina and Belgrade, Contact Group officials are reasonably confident that both the Yugoslav/Serb side and the ethnic Albanian political leadership under Ibrahim Rugova will attend. The big problem is the KLA, bitter rivals of Dr Rugova and largely beyond the reach of allied threats.

"We can bomb the Serbs," one senior Nato diplomat said, "but how do we bomb the KLA?" Even so, he insisted, if the others went to Rambouillet, the conference would go ahead, with or without the KLA.

Nato continued yesterday to finalise plans to deploy tens of thousands of Allied troops to police a peace deal. They would maintain order within Kosovo and, almost certainly, seal the province's borders with Albania and Macedonia.

Germany yesterday joined Britain and France in promising ground troops, and the US is bracing itself for something it once vowed it would never do.

The ultimate quandary for the allies, however, will be if either the talks do not start or they end in failure. The official line is ground troops would never not be used in those circumstances.

Fighting in the province continues, focused on the area near the border with Albania. Yesterday a Serbian policemen and 24 ethnic Albanian men were killed in a firefight at the village of Rogovo. It appeared that the men were ambushed at the "safe house" after crossing the mountains from Albania, but witnesses said bodies found some distance from the scene bore bullet wounds in the head, suggesting that they had been murdered in the aftermath of the clash.

The killings go on, page 13