Serbs may be ready to talk, say French

War in the Balkans: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online
FRANCE YESTERDAY claimed to detect "interesting" new signals of a possible easing of Belgrade's stance on Kosovo, as Russian and Western diplomats got down to their toughest talking yet to bring an end to the eight-week-old war.

According to Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, the latest statements by Yugoslav officials suggested the country might be moving, with reservations, towards the five conditions laid down by Nato for an end to the air strikes. President Milosevic's record in respecting promises meant the latest developments should be treated with extreme caution, Mr Vedrine warned the French parliament.

"We are looking for deeds not words," he said, referring to remarks by the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, this week, which indicated that Belgrade was open to a settlement sponsored by the United Nations. But he added: "This is a new statement. It is the first time it is said in this way."

Last night Mr Milosevic's intentions were being put to the test in talks with Viktor Chernomyrdin. Russia's Kosovo envoy had arrived in Belgrade straight from "positive" talks in Finland with Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, and the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, who will be the West's representative in in any dealings with the Yugoslav leader.

Mr Talbott himself flew from Helsinki to Bonn and a crucial meeting of senior officials of the G-8, comprising Russia and the main Western powers, who are working on a draft Security Council resolution laying down terms for a settlement.

Though many difficulties remain - differences within Nato, between Nato and Russia, and the even wider gap between Belgrade and the West - the activity is a sign that for the first time since the bombing started 57 days ago, diplomacy's hour may at last be at hand.

A de facto stalemate exists. Amid signs of growing popular discontent, President Milosevic can only want an end to the destruction of his country.

But by ruling out a ground war, Nato has ruled out the military coup de grace which might get the refugees back before winter. And in many member countries, public unease grows at the continued bombing. Both sides therefore have reason to want an end.

Last night, the G-8 officials were trying to agree a "road map" - the principles of a settlement to be enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution which must then be accepted by President Milosevic.

Only at that point, British officials said, would Nato be ready to suspend bombing, once the violence in Kosovo has stopped and the allies have "demonstrable" signs that Yugoslav and Serb forces are pulling out. "Obviously it's not Nato policy to bomb troops as they withdraw," one diplomat said, "but there's got to be reliable evidence."

The Serbs would then have seven days to complete the pullout before the insertion of an international peace-keeping force - now expected to number 40,000 to 45,000 instead of the originally planned 28,000 - and the refugees start to return. Only a token Yugoslav presence would be permitted, at the borders and to protect Serb monuments in Kosovo.

But Russia and the West are still at loggerheads over the make-up of the force and above all the timing of the bombing halt. Moscow would not agree any UN resolution until the air strikes stopped, Boris Mayorksy, Russia's representative, said during a break in the G-8 talks, which he described as "very hard going".