War In The Balkans: Peace Proposals - Belgrade offer was only for unarmed observers

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The Independent Online
HALF OBSCURED by the real war of bombs and missiles, and equally fierce fighting on the propaganda front, the first proposals have emerged for a Kosovo peace. For the moment, the deadlock between Nato and Belgrade remains complete; the statements thus far are not so much peace feelers as devices to stake out the ground. But if serious bargaining does start, the diplomats will have something, however meagre, to work with.

Yesterday, and to no one's surprise, the US and Britain gave short shrift to the latest gambit by Slobodan Milosevic,who for the first time since the conflict began a month ago, offered his assent to some form of international peace-keeping force in the province.

The details relayed to the outside world by the Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, after a day of talks with the Yugoslav President, are fuzzy: Mr Milosevic apparently would be ready to accept an "international presence" in Kosovo. Obviously it would contain Russians, but who else? Perhaps Greeks and Italians from Nato, but not those countries which have been carrying out the bombing.

What is more, Belgrade insists the presence should take the form of unarmed observers, rather than the heavily armed force that Nato (and even the Russians) believe is essential. Finally, both Serbs and Russians insist that nothing can happen until Nato unilaterally halts its air campaign.

For the allies, these terms are obviously a non-starter. Quite apart from its understandable reluctance to accept any Milosevic promise, Nato is adamant that while the peace-keeping force might contain troops from non-member countries, it must be Nato-led. with none of the infamous "dual key" arrangements with the United Nations, which bedevilled efforts to keep the peace in Bosnia before 1995.

The reaction of Tony Blair was icy. Nato's demands "are clear and they have to be met", he proclaimed, as an allied air strike devastated the headquarters of Serbian state television.

Mr Chernomyrdin, who spent most of Thursday with Mr Milosevic, must have expected as much. For one thing, the timing of the proposal is at least as important as its content - a hint of a shift in Belgrade's stance, designed to sow doubt at the Washington summit, exposing latent divisions between Britain, Nato's most hawkish member, and the US on the one hand, and the more cautious Europeans on the other. Unsurprisingly, British officials let it be known that Mr Chernomyrdin should drop any plans he might have had to to turn up in Washington, and strain Nato unity in person.

But on the sidelines of the summit, Nato's nearest equivalent to a peace package - the German initiative unveiled a fortnight ago - will be under intensive discussion. Bonn's ideas were initially (and unfairly) described in some quarters as a sell-out. In fact, as its authors insist, the initiative is less a free-standing plan than a "road map" towards securing Nato's five demands, endorsed by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general.

These are: a halt to military activities; the withdrawal of all Yugoslav security and paramilitary forces from Kosovo; the stationing of a peace force; the return of the refugees; and a political settlement "on the basis of" the Rambouillet agreement which Belgrade refused to sign.

What is more, the "road map" says the 24-hour halt in the bombing would only start after Serb forces began to withdraw. At the first sign Mr Milosevic was reneging on his undertakings, they would restart. For now, equally unsurprisingly, the Yugoslav President will have none of it.

The moment is not yet ripe for a major peace push, but if and when that moment comes, the present shadow boxing will start to matter.

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