Peace talks shrug off Serb delay

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The Independent Online
THE KOSOVO peace conference finally started here last night - but only after the Serb authorities had signalled their defiance by holding up for almost 24 hours the departure from Kosovo of the ethnic Albanian delegation.

Only after fierce pressure from the six nations of the contact group of leading powers did Belgrade relent, and the Albanian team, including five representatives of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), took off for Paris.

Officials of Britain and France, the countries co-hosting the talks, put a brave face on proceedings, maintaining that the delay was a predictable manoeuvre by Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president.

In a show of confidence they may not have felt, Robin Cook, Britain's Foreign Secretary, and the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, the conference chairmen, strolled in the streets of Rambouillet, in whose medieval chateau the negotiations will take place. The talks would not start without the KLA members, Mr Cook said earlier. "The ethnic Albanians must have the delegates they choose."

Both men accepted that the real difficulties were only starting. In Paris, Serb number two Ratko Markovic made it clear that Belgrade's representatives would not sit at the same table as the KLA. "We will not negotiate with terrorists," he said.

The first contacts here may well be "proximity talks" with the two sides holding separate discussions with the chief mediator, Christopher Hill, whose plan will form the basis of any settlement. It calls for autonomy for Kosovo, 90 per cent of whose population is ethnic Albanian. It will have an elected assembly, president and police force.

Serbia will be stripped of virtually all direct control, while the head of the 2,000-strong force of international monitors will be vested with vice-regal powers.

But this formula satisfies no one. The Kosovo Albanians demand independence while Belgrade insists the province remain part of Serbia. The major powers also oppose an independent Kosovo for fear it will provoke chaos throughout the region.

Mr Cook promised that the draft agreement would protect both communities. "It enables both sides to build a stable, peaceful Kosovo without surrendering any of their own views on the long-term future of the province," he said.

Opening the talks, President Jacques Chirac told negotiators: "I urge you to allow the forces of life to triumph over the forces of evil. The world is watching you and waiting. There are rare moments when history is in the hands of only a few men. This is the case today."

Mr Cook had earlier warned that using violence was unacceptable. But his words were ignored in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, where an explosion killed three, including a child.

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