War In The Balkans: Kosovo talks hit serious obstacle

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The Independent Online
DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS to find a solution to the Kosovo crisis struggled to make progress last night, as Russia's envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin prepared to embark on what promises to be another fruitless mediating mission to Belgrade.

Emerging during a break in long talks with Mr Chernomyrdin in Moscow yesterday, the US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, reiterated Nato's main terms for an end to the conflict - with which Russia and Belgrade are in disagreement. Mr Talbott insisted that Yugoslav forces must withdraw from Kosovo, Nato troops should form the heart of a peace- keeping force to protect returning refugees, and that there could be no let-up in the bombing until Belgrade complied. Nato sasid it had carried out a record number of sorties in the previous 24 hours.

The same goals were underlined by the key European allies yesterday, during a whirlwind trip to Rome, Bonn and Paris yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. At each stop, he and his Italian, German and French opposite numbers agreed that the air war must continue. "None of us like the bombing, but in present circumstances we don't see an alternative," said Lamberto Dini, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Italy, which in the past has flirted with the idea of a bombing pause.

But divisions opened anew over the circumstances in which the peace- keeping force - to be almost doubled to 50,000 men - would enter Kosovo. Britain is ready to go in even in the face of lingering resistance. But Mr Dini reiterated that the force should be ready "in case the Yugoslavs decide to withdraw". That, he stressed, "is different from moving in in a `non-permissive' environment".

None of this bodes well for the mission of Mr Chernomyrdin (possibly accompanied by the Western representative Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish President) on which the dwindling hopes of an early diplomatic solution are pinned. Belgrade is adamant no deal is possible until the bombing stops. It also wants a sizeable number of Serb forces to remain in a post- war Kosovo. And President Milosevic is opposed to Nato soldiers serving as heavily armed peace-keepers.

Without agreement between Russia and the G-8 group, no resolution setting out conditions for an end to the war can be submitted to the UN Security Council. A draft resolution has been sketched out by senior G-8 officials. But it is more notable for the bracketed sections indicating disagreement than for areas of agreement.

The Russians are dropping heavy hints that they are fed up with the exercise, and that, unless the West gives serious consideration to whatever proposals he brings back from Belgrade, Mr Chernomyrdin may abandon his efforts. About the only thing all parties - Russians, British, French and Italians - were at one on yesterday was that the war should not end with the partition of Kosovo. Even so Moscow is widely suspected of wanting to carve the province into sectors, with Russia looking after the richer, mainly Serb- populated parts.

Thoughts are turning to post-war reconstruction. Yesterday, the European Commission set out proposals for closer links with Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Yugoslavia itself - which could one day lead to full EU membership. Today, senior officials from the major powers, most Balkan countries and international financial and aid groups meet in Bonn to begin work on a "Balkan Stability Pact", which some see turning into a modern-day Marshall plan for the region.