Serbs stall at talks and call West's bluff

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AH, THOSE teeth. And that smile. Even the grey suit glimmered in the evening light. A bit like Liberace, but Milan Milutinovic's smile, glimpsed between the forests of television cameras and heaving pressmen, went on just a little bit too long; like his speech, repeated over and over as he marched towards his official car in the rue Kleber. "We are ready to sign a political agreement, but ...

On Monday, the first day of the reconvened Paris talks on the future of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians had agreed to an international peace plan granting them autonomy but not independence, and the introduction of Nato troops on the ground to ensure observance by all sides.

Yesterday, however, the "buts" came thick and fast as the bodyguards and journalists and policemen fought each other for space in the great amoeba-like trail of Serbia's president. But, of course, the Kosovo Albanians had to accept all of Serbia's "complaints". Yes, the Serbs were ready for implementation. But only for the political agreement. And the entry of 38,000 Nato troops to oversee the new peace?

The smile didn't fade for a second. But Mr Milutinovic's voice - like that of an army officer forced to admit a little hitch in strategy - faded just a little. "Yes, it's rejected," he muttered. "Our people clearly said what they think about it." And there we had it - predictably, another big "no" from Slobodan Milosevic. Equally predictably, Nato threats will follow. Indeed, even as the Serbs and Albanians were packing up for the night, there were rumours that Major-General Robin Cook would soon be returning to Paris to set yet more deadlines and propose more possible air strikes.

General Cook's ADC, Captain Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, was already accusing the Serbs of backtracking. "The very last moment has not yet come," he told the National Assembly yesterday in words that might have been scripted by his British superior officer. "The last word has not really been uttered. But the moment of truth is not far." The Kosovars preferred to remain silent. Wisely so. They had, after all, announced their preparedness to sign the political agreement.

"They will sign the Bible and the Koran if you ask them now," a Serb journalist confided at the police barrier in the rue Kleber. "Milosevic's guys have handed out a 20-page document of `complaints' that tears up the original agreement." And so they had. The Serbs didn't like the judicial system proposed for Kosovo and supposedly agreed by all at last month's Rambouillet talks. They didn't want Kosovo to have its own president. But if only the Kosovars would accept those 20 pages of amendments, the Serbs would go along with the revised (and thus worthless) "political agreement".

What we don't know, however, is what the real generals are thinking. Take Dragoljub Ojdanic, for example, the Yugoslav chief of staff. Or Rade Markovic, the head of Serbia's secret police. They are not part of the Serb delegation in Paris; they remain behind in Belgrade as part of Mr Milosevic's decreasing inner circle. Are they advising their master that Nato is still bluffing? Or are they recommending a little bombing from Nato to stiffen the Serbian backbone - and perhaps provide a get-out clause for Milosevic to hand over Kosovo? Or are they - and here's the rub - assuring their leader that the Yugoslav air force might be able, in the event of a Nato offensive, to do a little Argentine-style damage to Nato's Adriatic fleet?

In the rue Kleber, they were even saying that the whole panjandrum might close down as soon as tonight, leaving a few days for General Cook and Captain Vedrine to make some more of their famous threats and persuade an American - Supreme Allied Commander Albright, perhaps - to make "one last journey for peace" to Belgrade. As we all know, the Americans are ready to shout "chocks away". And the British too, up to a point. But the Germans and the Italians and the French, and just about everybody else, is beginning to wonder what happens after the bombs start to fall.

No wonder Mr Milutinovic had such a broad smile.