War in the Balkans: Hopes for peace back on track

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A FRENZIED day of negotiations in Bonn between G8 foreign ministers last night ended tantalisingly close to a breakthrough on a speedy United Nations resolution setting up a peace-keeping force for Kosovo.

With agreement reached on 17 points, the talks broke off for the Russian delegation to consult with Moscow on three sticking points: overall authority of the UN to impose a settlement, references to a war-crimes tribunal, and the shape of the peace force to go in after a Serb withdrawal.

On each point differences were narrowing. "I am very pleased," the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said. There was a "good prospect" that a virtually complete document could be finalised, ready to send to the UN in New York.

Last night the talks adjourned until today because the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, was awaiting instructions from Moscow. But the mood was confident that the resolution could be wrapped up when ministers reconvene in Cologne.

Early yesterday morning Nato had redoubled its bombing after talks failed between Nato and Serb generals in Kumanovo, Macedonia.

A Russian delegation official said Russia was insisting on a halt in bombing before it approves the resolution. China, like Russia, said Nato air strikes must stop before the accord can be brought before the UN Security Council. Both countries hold permanent seats on the Security Council and have veto power.

The European Union's Kosovo envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, was last night en route to Peking to win Chinese backing for the resolution. Despite the breakdown in military talks in Macedonia, Mr Ahtisaari told the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the other foreign ministers that "Milosevic says he intends to go forward with the agreement", a US State Department spokesman said.

The draft resolution calls for a UN-supervised civil administration and a military force in which Nato's central role will be explicitly or implicitly recognised, complete with a single chain of command. The issue of a Russian zone in Kosovo, raising the question of partition, was not even brought up, diplomats said.

The Serbs say they are required to withdraw only to "peace-time" levels, or about 15,000, one US official said. The Nato allies, however, are demanding a total pullout, with a few hundred Serb troops permitted to return as a symbol of Serb sovereignty in the province.

If a G8 deal sticks, peace would have moved a decisive step closer. A diplomatic framework would be in place, and President Milosevic would have lost his chance of playing off Russians against the West in a last bid to wriggle out of his predicament.

There was a big stir in Bonn yesterday with the arrival of the Mr Ahtisaari, co-author of the plan accepted by Mr Milosevic last week. Mr Ahtisaari, who had earlier spoken with the Yugoslav President, urged the ministers to nail down a text swiftly. Mr Milosevic, he said, had assured him he intended to implement his undertakings.

The likely sequence of events to implement a settlement could start with dispatch of an agreed text to New York, followed by Yugoslav compliance in Kumanovo. Serb withdrawal would start, followed "almost simultaneously" by a bombing pause and a Security Council resolution, conceivably within 48 hours. Withdrawal would then be completed and K-For would move in.