The talks between senior Serb and Yugoslav officials and political and military leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will be chaired by the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister. The delegates have been given a fortnight to agree a settlement based on a draft plan drawn up by the US envoy Christopher Hill, granting Kosovo wide autonomy for an interim period of three years.
But no member of the six-nation Contact Group of leading powers, which has convoked the conference, is under any illusion. "We have a mountain to climb," Mr Cook said yesterday. There is no guarantee of success, and even if a deal is reached, tens of thousands of Nato ground troops will be needed to make it stick.
An early sign of how difficult things could be came as local Serb officials reportedly refused to permit delegates from the Kosovo Liberation Army to enter the airport at Pristina from where they were to leave for the talks. A French government spokesman said Paris was ready to send a military plane to make sure participants arrived in time.
The conference - very much a test case for Europe's hopes of forging a stronger diplomatic and military identity - will be opened by President Jacques Chirac. Modelled in part on the Dayton talks which brought peace to Bosnia in 1995, the discussions are likely to begin as "proximity" talks, mediated by Mr Hill, before developing into fully fledged negotiations.
Officially, the Serb/Yugoslav delegation will be led by the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister,Ratko Markovic, and his opposite number in the federal Yugoslav government, Nikola Sainovic. Both are trusted aides of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who, though not present in Rambouillet, will be pulling the strings from Belgrade.
The Albanian team includes Ibrahim Rugova, political leader of the ethnic Albanians, as well as Azem Syla, said to be a top commander of the KLA, and Jakup Krasniqi, a KLA spokesman and former supporter of Mr Rugova's non-violent path to independence, who switched his support to the movement's military wing.
Rivalry between Mr Rugova and the KLA is but one problem bedevilling the talks. Even if they find a common voice, there remains the abyss separating the ethnic Albanians' demand for independence and Belgrade's insistence that Kosovo remains a part of Serbia. Nor is it certain that the Serbs will accept Nato peacekeepers onYugoslav territory.
The Nato force is expected to total between 20,000 and 30,000 men, with the largest contingents provided by Britain and France. Its precise make- up will depend on the size of the Yugoslav security force left in Kosovo after any settlement.
The abortive ceasefire deal negotiated by Richard Holbrooke last October permitted Belgrade to station 10,000 interior ministry troops, with three companies on patrol at any one time, to protect communications. But those terms were honoured only in the breach. "If Belgrade pulls out a lot of troops, and a credible Kosovo police force is set up, then the Nato force could be smaller," one diplomat said.Reuse content