Nato sets deadline on Serb air strikes

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SERBIA AND the federal Yugoslav government have in effect been given one final week to agree to the major powers' peace plan for Kosovo, or face Nato air strikes to break Belgrade's hold on the overwhelmingly Albanian province.

That blunt message was delivered to the stalled Rambouillet conference between Serbs and ethnic Kosovo Albanians by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, yesterday, in a visit that brought the two sides face- to-face for the first time since the talks began eight days earlier.

Ms Albright spent more than three hours in the former royal chateau in talks with the two delegations, before returning to Paris for a meeting of foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group, which was expected to authorise the extension of negotiations for a settlement of the year- long war.

Leaving no doubt that she blamed Belgrade for the impasse in the negotiations, Ms Albright indicated that while the Albanian side were ready to sign the agreement more or less as it stood, the Serbs were still holding out - although, she noted drily, "they seemed very interested in what I had to say". The Serb version of her meeting with Milan Milutinovic, the Serbian President, was much blunter, with one Belgrade official describing the hour-long encounter as "tense and uncomfortable" and a "rather one-way conversation". What the Secretary of State had to say was that, unless Belgrade accepted the package, it would face Nato air strikes. There was, she warned, "very little room for bargaining".

The heat is squarely on the Serbs, who have blocked any real progress at Rambouillet by insisting the ethnic Albanians formally endorse the statement of 10 principles issued when the two sides were summoned to negotiate a fortnight ago, and which grant Kosovo a wide measure of autonomy.

The ethnic Albanians are reluctant to so do because the document makes no reference to a referendum on independence once the three-year interim period covered by the draft agreement is over. But as Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, complained last week, the Serbian demand is irrel-evant since both sides implicitly accepted the 10 principles when they agreed to come to Rambouillet.

Though diplomats last night were stressing that the odds of success in Rambouillet were no more than 50:50, they were drawing some encouragement from Ms Albright's success in at least managing to get the two sides into the same room, after a week of sometimes meandering "proximity talks" conducted by US, European and Russian mediators.

The stakes now could not be higher, for all involved. In anticipation of an agreement, preparations for a 30,000-strong Nato peace-keeping force are in full swing; Britain is pre- positioning equipment and has 8,000 men on full alert to go to the Balkans, while on Saturday President Bill Clinton gave the clearest indication yet that up to 4,000 US ground troops would take part.

But failure of the talks would bring disarray and crisis all round. Within the contact group, France and Italy are far less keen on air strikes than the US, while Russia flatly opposes them. There is disagreement too about whether Nato should act without prior specific endorsement from the United Nations. On the ground, fighting would almost certainly increase in spring.

The conference was at a fork, Ms Albright declared. One way led to "chaos, disaster and more killing", the other "to a rational solution that will achieve peace, democracy and human rights for Kosovo". That choice at least had been recognised by the two sides in Rambouillet.

Especially important is the annex covering Kosovo's security. Under the present draft, Yugoslavia would be allowed to keep only 4,000 troops and security force members in Kosovo, compared with the present 14,000 or more.

There would be 1,500 permitted as border police, alongside 2,500 police, who would operate until Kosovo's own police force, stipulated by the agreement, is set up.

But, as Tony Blair and President Clinton said at the weekend, those ground troops will go in only if Rambouillet produces a settlement. There is no question of risking Western soldiers' lives in what the planners call a "non-permissive environment" - that is, as peace- imposers, not peace-keepers, to all intents and purposes at war with Belgrade.