Richard Holbrooke, the trouble-shooting diplomat who made a four-day tour of the region last week to try to stop the war from spreading from Kosovo through the proverbial Balkan tinder box, said the US had started talking to the Kosovo Liberation Army at an undisclosed location in Western Europe.
The US negotiator was the US Balkan envoy Robert Gelbard while his KLA partners could not be named, he said.
The announcement, at Crans Montana, in Switzerland, where Mr Holbrooke returned after fruitless talks with Serbia's president Slobodan Milosevic, will not only stun the Serbs, who say they are battling "terrorism", it will also shake supporters of moderate Albanian nationalists in Kosovo, led by Ibrahim Rugova.
Mr Holbrooke insisted Washington was not dropping its support for Mr Rugova. But that pious aside could not disguise the fact that Mr Holbrooke's announcement was a clear acknowledgement by Washington that it now recognises the KLA, not the moderates, as the real power on the ground in Kosovo with which Serbia - and the world - will have to deal if the war is to be stopped.
It is an astonishing turn-about for the KLA. Only months ago Serbia's grip over the province, 90 per cent of whose population is Albanian, looked unshakeable, while rumours of the existence of bands of fighters attacking Serb police patrols seemed no more than Serb propaganda.
Today the KLA controls about 30-40 per cent of Kosovo's territory.
In the province yesterday, Western diplomats said they believed a major battle was about to open for the strategic village of Kijevo, astride the main road leading from the provincial capital, Pristina, towards the south-west. KLA forces have held the Serb village in a state of siege for 10 days and, after rejecting demands to withdraw over the weekend, Yugoslav army tanks and troops were seen moving into the conflict zone. Yugoslav planes also evacuated Serb civilians from Kijevo at the weekend - another sign that a battle may be about to commence.
In Switzerland, Mr Holbrooke said he feared the deadlock over Kijevo could end in carnage. "If he [Mr Milosevic] opened the checkpoint at Kijevo by force, there would be tremendous bloodshed and you would know about Kijevo as a place that could have triggered a wider war," he said.
"We are only a few steps away from a general war." Television reports from neighbouring Albania quoted the KLA as saying they would let the Serb civilians leave Kijevo if the police and Yugoslav army withdraw from three vital positions in the area.
Kijevo has emerged as a possible site of what diplomats fear will be a third deadly offensive in Kosovo. The last Serb offensive, near Decani, in western Kosovo, triggered an exodus of tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians into northern Albania and caused massive material damage. The precise death toll has not been established.
In another sign that Mr Rugova's position was being completely marginalised, several of his allies in his political party, the LDK, were reported to have quit and set up a group that will act as the KLA's political wing. It will be called the Albanian Democratic Movement.
The American decision to throw their weight behind direct talks with the KLA holds big risks, one of the biggest being that no one really knows who runs the KLA or how - indeed whether - its command structures operate
Mr Holbrooke admitted this. "The contacts were with people who said they had this authority [over the KLA], but at this point that authority remains to be demonstrated," he said.Reuse content