THE BALKANS TRUCE: In a hot and dusty tent, two generals haggle over who goes where in Kosovo

The Talks
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The Independent Online
THE VENUE hardly resonated the sense of history and drama of what was taking place - a hastily put up army tent in a field of dust. But it was here, on a searing hot day, that Serb generals, for the second day running, baulked over the stark terms of their withdrawal from Kosovo.

The meeting was designed to be the scene of Yugoslavia's capitulation to Nato, represented by Britain's General Sir Michael Jackson insisting that the details of the military agreement were not open to negotiation. But yesterday produced a second day of difficult talks, in which Nato spokesmen talked of the Serbs behaving "in bad faith" while elsewhere in Kosovo their troops were looting and burning.

It was not meant to be this way. Bullish Nato officials had repeatedly stressed that this was dictation and not negotiation. The "surrender" document had already been signed and sealed in Belgrade last week and the only right the Serbs generals now had was to acquiesce. It should not take long.

That certainly was the feeling on Saturday when the talks began at Blace near the Kosovo border, in a roadside restaurant of red brick and stone cladding, renowned for its sausage sandwiches. The area was surrounded by Nato soldiers and armour after Yugoslavia's request to meet in no man's land had been rejected.

The Serbs turned up two and three-quarter hours late to show their displeasure. They came without the man who was supposed to be their chief negotiator, Col-Gen Svetozar Marjanovic, the deputy chief of defence staff. He was substituting for his boss, the chief of staff, Dragojlius Ojdomic, who felt it unwise to attend - the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague had indicted him for atrocities in Kosovo.

The Yugoslav delegation came in a convoy of BMW and Mercedes saloon cars. As they rolled up someone wise-cracked that the registration numbers should be checked, just in case they had been looted from some of the Kosovars, now destitute and living in tents a few miles up the road in the Stankovic refugee camp. The heavily armed Nato commandos on guard laughed.

And from the surrounding hills, curious Serb soldiers peered down through binoculars. They in turn were being kept in the gunsights of the splendidly plumed Italian Nato contingent. The Italians also provided a supply of pizzas and bottles of red wine to ease the tension of the talks. And the British, of course, drank tea, provided by the army as the cafe could only rise to grainy Balkan-style coffee.

In the course of the day, Lt-Col Robin Clifford, a British officer speaking for Nato, came out intermittently to speakabout the progress, or otherwise, of the talks. It was, he claimed, going well and the devil was in the detail.

Inside, however, the atmosphere was getting sour and fractious. With the rising temperature, the prospect of a rapid resolution began to fade away. The heat inside the tent, about 30 metres long, also rose as it seemed there was little chance of getting out of the impasse. The air conditioning, put in by the French overnight, had to be switched off because of the noise it was making. "Perhaps the plan is to sweat an agreement out of the Serbs," said a junior officer standing outside.

The Serbian delegation, led by Obrad Stevanovic of the notorious MUP, the Interior Police, and Col-Gen Blagoae Kovacevic, repeatedly protested that the Nato demands were unreasonable. Ther previous day they have been presented with a detailed road map of the routes they should use to remove every weapon and member of the Serb security forces from Kosovo.

Their forces, especially the armour, could not possibly move out at such a short time, especially as there was such an acute shortage of oil, they insisted. They also maintained it would be impossible to clear their own minefields. And what about the Kosovo Liberation Army, they asked, what about the safety of the Serbian civilians left behind in Kosovo?

British forces will be the first to enter Kosovo, an acknowledgment of the leading role they will play in the peace-keeping force, which is to be led by General Jackson. The allied forces, British, French, German, Italian and American forces will then establish a zone of command inside Kosovo, dividing the province like slices of pizza. Nato's role will be to use whatever force is necessary to prevent any disruptions to the peace, whether by Serbian forces or even the KLA.

The military agreement details precisely how and when Serb forces and armed civilians are to leave the province. Before Nato troops enter Kosovo, the Serbs must provide evidence within 24 hours that they are withdrawing. Only then will Nato bombers pause in their campaign. As the Serbs withdraw, British troops will lead the first of 16,000 Nato troops into Kosovo.

The talks were at all times correct, but it was not a meeting of professional soldiers working out an honourable peace. The atmosphere was cold towards the Serbian delegation. A few looked resigned and tired but the others had an air of almost jaunty disdain, making a show of their indifference to the international media, watching their humiliation.

Yesterday, the venue moved to Kumanovo, a small sports airfield 10 kilometres from the border. The Serbian delegation had doubled to 16 and comprised higher-ranking officials than the previous group. Col-Gen Marjanovic was present. The delegates were on time, and claimed they were eager to do business inside the stifling tent. As the Yugoslav officials read line by line through documents on the green- covered tables, the two sides regularly left the table to speak to their respective headquarters on walkie-talkies that are said to be secure from eavesdropping.

The talks broke up just after midday for a lunch of quiche, sandwiches, pastries and soft drinks - no wine this time - provided by the French contingent. They resumed with extra maps and charts being brought in. They moved on to what the Yugoslavs may want in return for a demilitarised zone. The Serbs again worrying about the KLA.

The talks were suspended at nightfall yesterday, but Nato spokesmen were insistent that the Serb delegation would be back after a few hours. There were many stumbling blocks, the main one apparently the alliance's insistence that there should be a demilitarised zone of 30 kilometres inside the borders of Serbia to prevent shelling on Allied forces. The delegation said it simply did not have the power to sign something like that or many of the other conditions, said Col-Gen Kovacevic. In that case, responded General Jackson with barely suppressed fury, get someone who does.

Hours later the Serbs had still not returned. Somewhere in the darkness, they were taking counsel. Somewhere else out of sight, as the TV arc-lights glowed hopefully, you felt that the Nato team was beginning to run out of patience.

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