War In The Balkans: Milosevic to seize his chance in rift

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ON THE banner of Serbia, it is written: Only Unity Saves the Serbs. And President Slobodan Milosevic will be quick to take advantage of the disunity of the outside world as his visitors present him with a peace plan whose authors were denying some of its contents the moment the envoys set off for Belgrade.

The disunity was as preposterous as it was potentially tragic. Even as European Union and Russian envoys were flying to Belgrade to present it to Mr Milosevic, Nato and Russia fell out over their latest Kosovo "peace plan" last night.

According to the Russian Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, an international peace force could be sent to Kosovo composed of Russian and Nato troops under separate commands - a plan that looked suspiciously like the partition of Kosovo; but in less than an hour, both Nato and the US State Department spokesmen were insisting that a peacekeeping force must be under Nato's sole direction.

The EU's envoy, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari who also flew to Belgrade last night, was facing the monumental task of explaining these hopelessly different versions of the US-Russian-EU proposals to Mr Milosevic - a task made more difficult because they were supposed to be a concrete and united plan that the Serbian leader would be forced to accept if Nato's bombardment of Yugoslavia was to end.

Nato's demands for a return of all Albanian Kosovo refugees to their homes, the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and the presence of an international force in the province, are all familiar to the Serb leader. But he has always insisted that Nato would not be allowed to lead such an army.

Mr Chernomyrdin's remarks will have found favour with Mr Milosevic - which is one reason why both Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman, and James Rubin, State Department spokesman, were so quick to deny what he said. A peace force, Mr Rubin insisted, must be under Nato control, whatever the degree of Russian participation.

But it was Mr Rubin who stated on Tuesday that Mr Ahtisaari has "all the detail that he needs so that when the Belgrade authorities ask the question `what is the precise timetable, exactly what will the force be composed of, how will it be verified?' he [Ahtisaari] believes he's got sufficient answers." Clearly, this was not the case last night.

For months, Serbs have suspected that the West intends to divide Kosovo, to give the south to the Albanians and leave the north for the Serbs. Serb nationalists have produced copies of Second World War maps which show Kosovo divided between its German and Italian occupiers and suggested that the world now has similar plans to divide the Serbian province.

But few Albanians would trust Russian troops under non-Nato command to guarantee their safety from Russia's Serb allies. And Nato's insistence that all of the Albanian refugees must return to their homes in Kosovo suggests that Mr Chernomyrdin's ideas of a separate Russian force will never be approved by the US. The Chernomyrdin-Ahtisaari proposals - which are supposed to be the joint work of Moscow, Washington and the EU - are supposed to form the basis of a UN Security Council resolution mandating the international force.

The Yugoslav government has long accepted the idea of a UN resolution but has refused to accept such an international peacekeeping army with Nato "at its core". The Russian and EU envoys were therefore arriving in Belgrade last night divided over the one issue which Mr Milosevic refuses to concede. An imminent end to the latest Balkan war, therefore, seemed less likely, even after 71 days of air bombardment by the 19 nations of Nato against a country of 10 million people.