Belgrade said the Yugoslav army would cease all attacks on the Kosovo Albanians from 7pm last night as "a goodwill gesture" ahead of the Orthodox Easter festivities. Like Russians, Serbs overwhelmingly belong to the Orthodox Church.
London and Washington were unimpressed, however. The White House shot back that an "undiminished, unrelenting and unceasing" air campaign would continue. "Hollow, half measures will not stop the bombing."
Britain said Nato would ignore the ceasefire until President Slobodan Milosevic withdrew troops from Kosovo, accepted an international peace force in the province and allowed the return of the 850,000 Albanian refugees who have been driven out since last year. "It is a sign of weakness. It shows Milosevic is feeling the heat," a Downing Street source said. "We have expected a diplomatic ploy from Milosevic. We won't fall for it. You know what our conditions are for suspending the air campaign. Until those conditions are met, it will continue."
British officials said it was no coincidence Serbia had launched its peace initiative after the heaviest night of bombing in the two-week campaign. Last night, the sirens were sounding again in Belgrade. Serbian leaders protested that the offer was sincere. "This is not a show. This is a question of fighting for the life and death of all the Serbs and Albanians of this country," the deputy prime minister Vuk Draskovic said. He painted an unlikely picture of Serbian officials crossing the Yugoslav border into the squalid refugee camps of Albania and Macedonia to ask their "dear Albanian neighbours and citizens to come back".
Far from responding to the appeal, terrified refugees continued last night to stream out of Kosovo. British officials said 65,000 refugees remained stranded in a no man's land on the frontier between Kosovo and Macedonia, while there were now 135,000 refugees in Macedonia and 220,000 in Albania. Macedonia flew 340 refugees to Turkey, in spite of the fact that many did not know where they were going and clearly did not want to leave. "We don't want to go to Turkey, nobody told us," shouted one 18-year-old, carrying his disabled nephew onto the aircraft.
The UN refugee chief, Sadako Ogata, accused Serbia of attempting to wipe out Kosovo's identity. Opening an emergency meeting in Geneva of more than 50 governments on Kosovo, the UNHCR leader said the extent of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo may be far worse than the carnage in Bosnia from 1992-5. "It is frightening that this century, as in its darkest hours, should end with the mass deportation of innocent people," she said.
Western governments have been expecting a Serb peace offensive for days, especially after Serbian state television started parading the discredited Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova deep in conversation with President Milosevic.
While the Government is keen to suggest Belgrade is on its knees, an alternative explanation is that Serbia has got what it wanted in Kosovo and now wants to consolidate its battlefield gains.
The expulsion of several hundred thousand Albanians has shifted Kosovo's demographic balance in Serbia's favour, while the Yugoslav army has hemmed the rebels fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army into a few enclaves
In another sign that Serbia is trying to wriggle out of its diplomatic isolation, a government minister told French television Serbia will withdraw the troops to barracks. "Our government is certainly ready to withdraw the forces which were only there to fight the terrorists," Milan Komnenic said. "Our army and police were never aimed at civilians."
The Serbian initiative has confused people at home. Montenegro, the junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, said it was at a loss. "Nato would never consider such an offer and Belgrade must have known this," the deputy prime minister Milan Burzan said. "Milosevic cannot bargain now." Mr Burzan said Serbia must cave in to Nato's demands. "I feel very sorry for the Serbs," he said. "They don't understand the damage involved".Reuse content