War in the Balkans: Diplomacy - Russians in US for new talks on peace

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PRESIDENT BILL Clinton came under growing pressure to soften his stance on Kosovo last night as diplomatic efforts to end the war increased and US domestic divisions widened.

The President softened the rhetoric behind the bombing slightly as the Russian mediator Viktor Chernomyrdin flew in for talks at the White House. "We can have a bombing pause, if it's clear that it will be in aid of that larger purpose," Mr Clinton said.

But he insisted that the conditions for a pause remained the same as ever. "Our conditions for ending the bombing are not complicated," he said. "The Kosovars must be able to go home with security and self-government. Serbian forces must leave Kosovo. An international security force must deploy with the power not just to monitor but to protect all the people of Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs alike."

Mr Chernomyrdin was cautiously optimistic after his talks with Mr Clinton. "We got closer to a diplomatic solution," he said. He is due to meet Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, today. "We still have a lot of work to do on the political and diplomatic front before I can say that we are on the verge of a deal," Mr Annan cautioned.

The President was also faced by pleas from the Rev Jesse Jackson for peace. Mr Jackson returned yesterday from freeing three US soldiers from Serbia bearing a letter from President Slobodan Milosevic, and made a strong pitch for peace. "The US and Nato have the power to fight. Both of them must have the strength to negotiate," he said. "I read Nato's response as the idolatry of might. I read it in some sense as the arrogance of power."

Mr Jackson is a key ally of the President, and his support was crucial during the impeachment process. It will not be easy to brush off his entreaties to end the conflict.

The President is also under siege in Washington, where domestic divisions over the war are multiplying. Neither house of the US Congress has been able to agree to support the President over the conflict, some US legislators have taken the President to court over his undeclared war, and spending to support the operation has become caught up in internal political wrangling.

The US Senate met yesterday to try to agree a motion that would authorise the President to use "all necessary force and other means" to resolve the conflict. But with no clear consensus on the issue, an effort was under way to kill it off, leaving policy drifting in the wind. "Apparently, the hard facts of war not need inconvenience the Senate at this time. And the solemn duties that war imposes on us can be postponed indefinitely," complained John McCain, a sponsor of the motion.

The House of Representatives last week failed to agree on a similar motion, voted down measures that would have openly declared war or ended the conflict, and then shocked the White House by failing to support even the current air war. The Congress "voted `no' on going forward, `no' on going back, and tied on standing still," said a White House spokesman.

Many Democrats and Republicans have policy differences with the White House and oppose the war on ethical or foreign policy grounds. But some of the Republicans are opposing the White House simply because they loathe Mr Clinton, observers believe. "Some of us in Congress are so distrustful of the President that we feel obliged to damage the office in order to restrain the current occupant," said Mr McCain. Splits have emerged even in the Republican leadership.

Under the Constitution, the President is the Commander-in-Chief but only Congress can declare war. This situation was supposed to have been resolved by the 1973 War Powers Act, but that has only caused more confusion.