War In The Balkans: Russian Mediation - Primakov flies to Belgrade for talks

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S PRIME Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, will today set off for Belgrade in an attempt to persuade Yugoslavia to accept a peace deal, and bring an end to nearly a week of Nato bombings and spiralling "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.

Russia is widely seen as the key to a settlement in Yugoslavia, its traditional ally, but there was widespread agreement that Mr Primakov faces an enormous task and has only a remote chance of success. Mr Primakov received guarded endorsement from the US. Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary, said it welcomed "those who have influence in Belgrade who can take a clear message of where Nato and the United States stands, and what President Milosevic needs to do to end this bombing campaign."

Whether that is anything close to the tone of the message that Mr Primakov, who opposes Nato's approach, will deliver is in serious doubt. He will fly to Yugoslavia with the Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, and Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev - both of whom have been scathing, and at times wild, in their criticism of Nato's bombings.

Mr Ivanov made a strong pro-Serbian speech yesterday attacking the Kosovo Liberation Army and Marshal Sergeyev claimed 1,000 citizens had already died in the assaults - a figure not even claimed by the Yugoslavs themselves.

As the Russian rhetoric gathered pace, the Kremlin took credit for ordering the peace mission. President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman said it was "to co-ordinate steps [with Mr Milosevic] which could help find a political solution to the conflict which has emerged because of Nato's action".

In Moscow, political commentators were not expecting much from Mr Primakov's dash to Belgrade. "Everyone understands his mission is almost impossible," said Yacheslav Nikonov, head of the Polity Foundation.

Certainly Mr Primakov will not be encouraged by the experience of three leading Russian democrats - former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, and ex- ministers Boris Nemtsov and Boris Fyodorov - who arrived in Belgrade for talks on Sunday.

The Serb media described the Russians as "scum and trash".

Yugoslavia's position was spelt out to them by its deputy Prime Minister, Vuk Draskovic: the Serbs will only talk once the bombing stops.