War In The Balkans - Diplomacy: Schroder grovels in Peking on Nato's behalf

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THE WEST yesterday mounted a two-pronged diplomatic offensive in Peking and Moscow, aimed at mollifying China and preserving Russia's co-operation in securing a UN resolution to impose a Kosovo settlement on President Milosevic.

Speaking after talks with the Chinese leadership, the visiting German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, emphasised Peking's right to a proper apology for the mistaken bombing of its Belgrade embassy in which three Chinese nationals were killed. "I understand that it cannot be done just by saying `we're sorry, we feel pity'. We really have to apologise formally and officially, and I have done this," Mr Schroder said.

He also played down the notion that Peking's co-operation over a UN Security Council peace plan could be "bought" by Western - above all American - concessions on trade, security and human rights. "I do not think that the moral position the [Chinese] government has adopted should be underestimated like this," Mr Schroder declared. But he acknowledged that Nato completely rejected Peking's view that air strikes - yesterday the heaviest in the 50-day war - must stop as a pre-condition of any negotiated settlement. But he said China had accepted that the seven-point plan agreed between Nato and Russia last week could be "quite a solid basis" for a solution.

In Moscow, the Deputy US Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, again met Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's Kosovo envoy, with both men striking an upbeat note despite the political turmoil raging around them after the sacking of the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

"We have moved closer to a solution," said Mr Chernomyrdin , who is expected to travel to Belgrade after a second round of discussions with Mr Talbott today. But despite heaping praise on Mr Chernomyrdin's shuttle diplomacy, which took him to Peking earlier in the week, the US official stressed that Nato's demands on Kosovo had not changed, despite the torrent of criticism following the embassy bombing. The same point will be made by President Chirac of France when he meets Boris Yeltsin today. The alliance is adamant on two points: that the bombing will continue until it has clear evidence Mr Milosevic is pulling his forces out of Kosovo; and that the international peacekeeping force, even if under a UN flag, is under Nato command with a strongly armed Nato "core".

But the going will not be easy. Western diplomats in Peking expect China will seek a softer line from the West on issues ranging from entry into the World Trade Organisation to the American plans for a missile defence system in East Asia that would cover Taiwan, regarded by the mainland as a renegade province .

Big trade and tariff concessions were offered by Zhu Rongji, China's Prime Minister, during his recent trip to Washington, only to see them rebuffed by the Clinton Administration.

Even before Nato's mistaken strike, Mr Zhu was already under fire from conservatives for ceding too much to the Americans. Now, Peking will look instead for new compromises from the US.