Plans are being drawn up to set an ultimatum for the Serbians and the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA) to come to a meeting on neutral territory, probably in a European city. The peace conference would involve proximity talks, with the two camps speaking through an intermediary, rather than coming together around a single table.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has invited ministers from six other countries that belong to the Kosovo Contact Group - the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy - to a meeting to discuss the prospects of reaching a political settlement in the Serbian province. They are likely to issue a formal invitation to the two sides to proximity talks when they meet, probably later this week.
Meanwhile the Serbs were put under further pressure when it emerged that Nato is still discussing sending ground troops, including British soldiers, to Kosovo to police a ceasefire.
Details of Nato's position were revealed yesterday while international monitors were negotiating the release of two groups of captives in Kosovo to try to ward off a new outbreak of fighting.
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas from the KLA, fighting for independence from Serbia, took five elderly Serbs hostage on Friday in the village of Nevoljane, near the northern Kosovo town of Vucitrn. The ethnic Albanians' Kosovo Information Centre said ethnic Albanian residents of Nevoljane had fled for fear of reprisals.
On Friday evening and again yesterday morning police were deployed around the village, heightening tensions. The KLA's news agency claimed the five had been "arrested" because they were armed with machine guns, automatic weapons and 1,500 rounds of ammunition and had been harassing ethnic Albanians.
William Walker, the American head of the western monitor mission, condemned the kidnappings as "uncivilised", and the Serb villagers were released unharmed on Saturday.
Nato's intervention would not be straightforward. The US wants to use the threat of air power to force Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, to the negotiating table. But western leaders are aware that - as in Bosnia - ground forces would have to follow airstrikes, to hold the ring against any further violence between the KLA and Yugoslav government forces.
The US Defence Secretary William Cohen yesterday voiced his objections to the idea of ground forces because he fears that a commitment would be open-ended, like the Nato force which is still in Bosnia three years after the Dayton Peace Accords.
"Any serious discussion on how to resolve Kosovo over the long term must explore all options," a senior US national security official told the Washington Post yesterday. "It's just a fact of life that our allies are reluctant to support air power against the Serbs in the absence of a clear strategy for what happens next on the ground."
One option involves a force to protect international monitors after a ceasefire deal and acceptance by Belgrade of further limitations on its forces. Another - much less likely - is a force to impose a ceasefire, which could involve up to 50,000 troops.
But a Foreign Office spokesman stressed yesterday that military action remains an option if the two sides refused to co-operate in talks. "We need to exert as much pressure as possible to get the political process moving," one source said. "It is only if they take the threat of military action seriously, and it's credible, that there is likely to be a breakthrough."
The threat of imminent military action had receded on Friday after officials from the Contact Group countries met in London to discuss the pros-pects of a political settlement.
The intended talks would be based on a peace plan, being prepared by Christopher Hill, a senior American diplomat. This does not propose independence for Kosovo, because the West fears that this would send a message to other minority groups that violent insurrection is successful. But Kosovo would be offered considerable autonomy in the Yugoslav Federation.
Yesterday the German magazine Focus quoted Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as saying that Germany would send ground troops to support possible Nato intervention in Kosovo.
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