Serbs stall at peace talks

More meetings today as Milosevic's generals dash hopes of a speedy settlement
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The Independent Online
CRUCIAL TALKS at a border cafe between Nato and Yugoslav military commanders over the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo broke up without agreement last night, leading to fears that a peace settlement was not as certain as had been widely assumed.

The decision of the Serbian delegation not to sign the deal without further consultations with President Slobodan Milosevic came despite Nato claims that there was no room for negotiations.

Yesterday's talks at Blace in Macedonia, near the border with Kosovo, lie at the heart of the peace deal - the removal of Yugoslav forces from the province and their replacement by a Nato-led force. Failure to agree meant there was no respite in the fighting: bombing of Yugoslavia continued last night, and there was heavy fighting in and near Kosovo, with Serbian shells hitting two villages in northern Albania. The talks will restart early today at Kumanovo airport, near Skopje.

The Serbian forces in Kosovo would have to leave by agreed routes and under an agreed timetable, and would have to inform the alliance about the locations of mines and booby traps. The force replacing them would be, it has been revealed, 90 per cent Nato. This is said to have led to consternation among some Yugoslav senior officials who had expected a greater number from Russia and other eastern European countries.

The Russians, who played a large part in brokering the peace deal, were not present: their differences with Nato over the agreement may pose the greatest threat to its implementation.

Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman in Brussels, yesterday ruled out the introduction of a separate zone for Russian troops, although the Russians were refusing to put their soldiers under Nato command. "It is our intention to have soldiers of the international security force, including, of course, many Nato soldiers, in every village and on every street corner," he said. "We are not talking about differentiated zones."

While Mr Milosevic pondered the report from his negotiators, the Pentagon's spokesman, Ken Bacon, made it clear that the US expected most, if not all, of Kosovo's Serb population to leave, in what would amount to a fresh wave of ethnic partition.

"I don't think that Kosovo will be a very happy place for Serbs when Nato comes in," he said. "The Serb minority will be allowed to stay if it wants to stay." He added that "many Serbs may want to leave after what has happened". Nato would protect the Serb minority, and "nobody is going to force anybody out of Kosovo". But the US had already received many reports that most Serbs would leave. "The free movement of people is something that all democracies stand for," he said.

The exit of Kosovo's Serb population would cause another humanitarian crisis, since the road and rail links to Serbia have been destroyed by Nato's bombing campaign and there will be no facilities for them in Serbia.

The talks, between a Nato delegation led by the British General Sir Mike Jackson, commander of Nato's Kosovo force, and the Serbian side, led by General Blagoje Kovacevic, a deputy army chief of staff, and General Obrad Stevanovic, a senior commander of the notorious Interior Ministry police, started nearly three hours later than the scheduled time of 9am because, it is believed, of Yugoslav unhappiness over some of the arrangements.

The meeting was held at a restaurant called Europe 93, in an area bristling with Nato troops and armour. The international media were in attendance, leading to further complaints by the Serbian delegation.

Nato officials in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and Brussels had stressed throughout the day that the plan for the evacuation of the Yugoslav forces from Kosovo had already been agreed and the meeting was effectively to rubber stamp it. However, the Yugoslav delegation left for consultations with their government late in the afternoon and it was later announced that no agreement was expected last night.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Clifford of the British army, speaking on behalf of Nato, described the talks as "positive" and "encouraging", and refused to discuss where the difficulties had arisen. One source stated that there appeared to have been "a misunderstanding" by the Serbs about the exact nature of some of the demands made of them under the agreement.

There was also concern among the Serbs about the fact that the Kosovo Liberation Army will not be immediately disarmed, rendering the Serbs inside Kosovo vulnerable. Mr Shea called on the KLA not to "take advantage of the situation".

Yesterday's talks were held in a ground-floor room of the restaurant, owned by an Albanian, across dining tables pulled together with around 30 people present. The atmosphere was said to be businesslike rather than cordial.