War in the Balkans: Diplomacy - Peace mission set for dead end

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THE LATEST peace mission of the Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin had barely begun when Yugoslavia seemed to wreck it by insisting yestesday that any international peace-keepers in Kosovo must be unarmed - a condition flatly rejected by the Nato countries.

A Belgrade foreign ministry spokesman said that his country would consider a United Nations-led force if one was approved by the Security Council. But, he said, it must be unarmed - in other words, much the same as the international monitor force that spent five months in Kosovo before the Rambouillet conference collapsed and Nato began bombing on 24 March. The offer was immediately dismissed by the White House last night.

Mr Chernomyrdin arrived in the wake of the fiercest night of air strikes against the Yugoslav capital yet, which according to the authorities killed at least three people and wounded 40 more as one errant missile smashed into a residential neighbourhood, and others hit the army headquarters and other government buildings.

Speaking in Rome before his departure to Belgrade, Mr Chernomyrdin sounded typically upbeat, saying that positions had moved closer and that "I have the feeling we will reach a solution." But the gap between Belgrade's terms and the demands of Nato seemed unbridgeable yesterday.

Not only does the alliance insist that the peace-keeping force must be powerfully armed and dominated by troops from Nato countries, it is also adamant that there will be no let-up in the bombing until Yugoslav soldiers and paramilitary units "demonstrably" start to withdraw from Kosovo.

Indeed Tony Blair - who will visit British troops in Albania next week - and Bill Clinton - who will visit United States troops in Germany and Nato headquarters in Brussels next week - agreed in a telephone call that the air war will be increased. Better weather, too, is helping Nato to fly a record number of sorties.

However uncertain its prospects, this second trip to Yugoslavia in 10 days by Mr Chernomyrdin should at least make clear whether Slobodan Milosevic pays any more attention to a friendly Russia than he does to his opponent, Nato. For all the outward warmth, the signs are that he does not.

A mission early in the war by Yevgeny Primakov, the Prime Minister, ended in total failure, while Mr Chernomyrdin's first visit on 22 April produced merely an ambiguous formulation about peace-keepers which, it transpired, Belgrade insisted should be unarmed. A week of bombing since has not shifted its position.

Another visitor to Belgrade, Jesse Jackson, also met with little success - in his case in an attempt to secure the release of the three US soldiers captured in the first days of the war. Mr Jackson said he had been told that a release "was not on the agenda". But he would be allowed to visit the men, he added.

"Bombing cannot be a solution," the US civil rights leader declared after inspecting the Vracar residential district hit by the Nato bomb. "The more bombs fall over Serbia, the more people are displaced in Kosovo, the more losses will accumulate. The only winning option is diplomacy." But last night, diplomacy looked a loser too.