War in the Balkans: Diplomacy - US gloomy on chances of peace deal

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The Independent Online
AFTER ANOTHER day of intense diplomatic activity in Moscow, Russia's Kosovo envoy is heading for Belgrade in a new attempt to win round Slobodan Milosevic to a peace deal. But his chances of securing any agreement on terms acceptable to the West seemed minimal last night.

Although the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, claimed last night that prospects for peace were advancing and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, spoke of "movement," senior American and British officials were sceptical of an early breakthrough meeting Nato's conditions for a settlement.

"I have not heard anything from Belgrade to suggest that Yugoslavia is ready to move in that direction," Strobe Talbott, the United States deputy secretary of state, said in Berlin after a meeting with the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan - who himself is due in Moscow today for four-way talks on Kosovo with Mr Ivanov and the foreign ministers of Greece and Canada.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian prime minister, will be stopping in Germany and Italy before arriving in Belgrade for his second round of talks with President Milosevic in 10 days. The first yielded no more than vague Yugoslav consent for an international force in Kosovo. But Belgrade immediately insisted this should consist of unarmed observers, something even the Russians deem utterly inadequate.

However, this trip could advance matters a little further - despite last night's apparent triumph for the hardliners in the sacking of Vuk Draskovic, the Yugoslav deputy premier who dared to suggest that Belgrade might be ready to accept a UN-led peace-keeping force.

There are two new ingredients in the diplomatic mix. The first is the close involvement of the Germans, whose Defence Minister met Russian leaders in Moscow yesterday, and whose Chancellor will hold talks with Mr Chernomyrdin in Bonn today; the other is Mr Annan, head of the organisation that will play a key role in implementing any settlement.

The pattern of contacts suggests that the German proposals, largely scoffed at by other alliance leaders three weeks ago, could now be significant. Most pertinently, the package calls for a 24-hour halt in air strikes, after Serb and Yugoslav forces have begun to withdraw from Kosovo, extendable if and when that withdrawal continues. It also provides for a strong international peace-keeping force and the placing of postwar Kosovo under a transitional UN- authorised administration.

Even so, there were signs of anxiety in some Nato capitals that the German government, driven by the need to placate public opinion and preserve the unity of the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, might be going too far, too fast.

In contrast to what happened in recent confrontations with Iraq, however, Mr Annan's appearance on the scene is not causing concern. Although ruffled by Nato's bypassing of the UN in launching the bombing campaign, he was quick to endorse the alliance's five demands for an end to the bombing, including the withdrawal of all Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo, and the deployment of a strong international force there.

The two immediate areas of dispute are the terms under which Nato bombing would stop, and the make-up of the international peace-keeping force. Both Belgrade and Moscow insist on an unconditional end to air strikes, a step equally adamantly refused by Nato.

The alliance also demands that Nato troops form the backbone of any peace-keeping force.

On the first point, deadlock looks complete. But despite the dismissal of Mr Draskovic, there were some signs of movement on the second yesterday as Mr Talbott indicated Washington's readiness to discuss "the exact auspices and composition" of the peace-keeping force - in other words, it could be UN-led.

"Remember that the UN resolution authorising the SFOR stabilisation force in Bosnia made no direct reference to Nato, even though it is in practice a Nato force," a British official said last night. "That's the face-saver, the only face-saver, available for Milosevic over the Kosovo force."

But it was not clear last night how much, if any, of the Nato platform Mr Chernomyrdin would be taking to Belgrade. Although Russia is basking in the attention, it is also going to some lengths to remind the West that it is not easily manipulated, and remains fundamentally opposed to the air strikes. It refuses to abide by the Nato and European Union oil embargo against Yugoslavia, and is redrafting its military doctrines to give them a tougher, more anti-Western stance. Mr Annan described the signals from the Kremlin as "slightly confusing".