War In The Balkans: Primakov fails to end the bombing

The Peace Effort

AS NATO promised to increase its air bombardment of Serb forces in Kosovo, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, last night offered a ceasefire in return for an immediate halt in hostilities. After six hours of talks with the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, in Belgrade, the Serb leader promised he would reduce his forces in Kosovo and allow "all peaceful refugees" to return to the province "if they are Yugoslav citizens", providing the Nato bombardment ends. It seemed unlikely - to say the least - that Nato would accept his offer.

Serb television quoted Mr Milosevic as saying that "Nato aggression should stop" because it is a threat to "international security". There was also speculation that the Serbs would be prepared to accept a peace- keeping observer force in Kosovo made up of neutral nations - and perhaps also Russia. But last October's peace agreement in Kosovo itself provided for a reduction in Serb forces and for international observers - an accord that disintegrated when the Serbs refused to accept the military implementation of the autonomy plans accepted by Kosovo Albanians in Paris this month.

Furthermore Nato, according to Mr Primakov, would also have to end its support for the Kosovo Liberation Army - an unlikely step since KLA representatives signed the Paris autonomy agreement. And tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians do not hold Yugoslav passports; very few acknowledge Yugoslav sovereignty. So how could they "return" to Kosovo? Mr Primakov arrived in Bonn from Belgrade last night to say that Mr Milosevic's offer was "a positive beginning and if the other party [Nato] is willing, a dialogue can start". Mr Milosevic was ready to be "constructive" if Nato showed positive signs of accepting the idea.

Early yesterday evening, however, it did not look as though Nato would be able to accept the Serb proposals. The British Government rejected Mr Milosevic's reported offer and said the bombing would continue. "He knows what he has got to do. It's actions on the ground that matter, not words about what might happen if Nato ceases its military operations. And he has a track record of breaking promises," said a spokesman.

Indeed, Mr Milosevic - well aware that Nato fatally miscalculated Serb resistance - may simply be trying to gain the moral high ground, aware that his forces could pursue their ferocious campaign in Kosovo the moment Nato rejected his offer. Yet faced with its unwillingness to send ground troops into battle and the humanitarian catastrophe its bombardment provoked - and which Serb forces brought about - there will be Nato nations all too ready to accept any chance of a ceasefire in what now looks like an unwinnable war.

Nato's air bombardment of Yugoslavia had continued even as Mr Primakov arrived in Belgrade yesterday morning. The handshakes and arm-clasps were fraternal, the smiles broad as he stepped from his Tupolev jet at the glass-shattered airport in Belgrade, only minutes after President Boris Yeltsin had condemned the Nato offensive in Moscow. Amid the broken fabric of the airport, smashed in a Nato air raid on a neighbouring communications centre 48 hours earlier, Mr Primakov said that he was trying to move the crisis into political territory or - as he put it in colloquial Russian - "into the political tub".

Mr Milosevic received Mr Primakov in the Beli Dvor - the ornate "White Palace" that was home to the Yugoslav monarchy and later to Tito - in the Belgrade suburb of Topsider, scarcely three miles from the military base at Rakovica that has already been bombed four times by Nato aircraft. Mr Primakov had brought with him his Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, and senior Russian intelligence officers.

Shortly after he sat down with Mr Milosevic, Mr Primakov raised both his arms as if imitating the flight of an aircraft - and it is certain that the Russians expressed interest in examining the wreckage of the American F-117A Stealth fighter that crashed 25 miles from Belgrade on Saturday night.

But even as Mr Milosevic spoke to his Russian guests, new facts were being created on the ground in Kosovo. With more than 25 per cent of the Kosovo Albanians displaced and legions of refugees still pouring into Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, the Serbs may soon be in a position to claim that northern Kosovo has been abandoned by its Albanian population. There are growing suspicions in Belgrade that once this has been accomplished, Nato may tacitly accept a division of the province with the capital Pristina, the Drenica region and the Trepca lead, zinc and gold mines - the most valuable piece of real estate in the Balkans - remaining exclusively in Serb hands.

The Serbs remain convinced that Nato has turned into a tool of the KLA - against whose forces the Yugoslav army scored a significant success on Sunday with the capture of scores of new anti-armour weapons. However fanciful the notion, it has been fuelled by Serb claims that Nato raids on Serb security forces in Kosovo have been followed by KLA attacks on the newly bombed facilities. Serbia's conviction that it is the victim of a Nato-KLA plot will only have been reinforced yesterday when the British Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, vouchsafed the view that "if these people [the Kosovo Albanians] say Nato is right to act, who has got the right to say they are wrong?". Hence Mr Milosevic's insistence that any ceasefire must be accompanied by an end to Nato's support for the KLA.

Figures suggest that up to 36,000 Yugoslav forces - 20,000 soldiers and 16,000 special police - are now in Kosovo, clear proof that Nato air strikes have totally failed to dissuade the Serbs from their offensive. Any hope that Mr Milosevic would accede to American and European plans for an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo after two or three days of bombing have been abandoned. Among those most critical of Nato's miscalculations is Carl Bildt, the highly respected former European envoy to Bosnia who has condemned Nato for bombing without the motivation and will to commit ground troops to the battle for Kosovo.

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