Release of soldiers lifts Kosovo gloom

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The Independent Online
FOR THE TIME being, at least,Kosovo has edged itself back from the brink of all-out war, as ethnic Albanian fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Armyyesterday freed the eight Yugoslav soldiers they had held for five days.

The men, apparently in good condition, were handed back at the village of Stari Trg, close to where they had been held since being captured last Friday. The release followed intense mediation by members of the international team who monitor the ceasefire. Just a few kilometres away waited dozens of tanks of the Yugoslav army, ready to crush this latest insurgency by force had the mediation efforts failed.

It seemed likely, but was not immediately confirmed, that in return for the release the Yugoslav authorities have agreed to set free at least nine KLA members they were holding prisoner. Although the Serbian side said that the release was "unconditional," William Walker, the head of the monitors, refused to give details of what he termed a "fair and balanced agreement". This implies that the KLA prisoners could be freed later as part of an amnesty, allowing Belgrade to save face and claim victory for the time being.

The peaceful resolution now gives a small - and perhaps final - breathing space for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to convert the fragile ceasefire, brokered last October by the US troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke, into a more solid truce, before spring and the advent of the Balkans' traditional combat season.

The omens, however, are not good. All hope of a lasting Kosovo settlement depends on the start of serious political talks between President Slobodan Milosevic's government in Belgrade and the ethnic Albanians, who account for 90 per cent of the population of the Serbian province.

The one plan currently on the table has been devised by Christopher Hill, the US special envoy to the Balkans. It calls for a restoration of the province's autonomy, but not its independence and puts off for three more years a final decision on Kosovo's status.

But talks have not begun - and indeed cannot begin until the Albanians sink their internal differences and adopt a common position. If anything, however, the rift seems to be widening between the political leadership under Ibrahim Rugova, which advocates peaceful means to secure independence, and the KLA, which has been waging a war for 18 months to throw the Yugoslavs out by force.

That rivalry could explain the murder on Monday by unknown assassins of Enver Maloku, the chief of the pro- Rugova Kosovo Information Centre. The KLA insists Mr Maloku, who was shot outside his home in the province's capital, Pristina, was killed by Serbs in revenge for the death of several Serb farmers and policemen in previous days. Others suspect the KLA of being behind the attack.

What is not in doubt is that the KLA has used the recent lull to boost its strength, smuggling anti-tank weapons and other arms across the border from north-western Albania, where it is in virtual control.

This means that should the fighting restart in earnest, the Serbs will no longer have it all their own way.