War in The Balkans: Serbia accepts `principles' of Nato peace plan

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SERBIA MAY be closer to accepting Nato's five key demands for an end to the Yugoslav air campaign, the alliance said yesterday.

Two days after Russia's Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, left Belgrade saying he was "very satisfied" with his shuttle diplomacy, Serbian state media reported that Belgrade had accepted the "general principles" of a settlement put forward by the G8 group of Western powers plus Russia.

On leaving the Yugoslav capital, the Russian diplomat was evasive about what he had actually agreed with Slobodan Milosevic. Russian media reported that the deal included a "reduction" in Serbian forces in Kosovo and an international peace-keeping force without British or American troops in it - conditions unlikely to satisfy the Western alliance.

However, the Nato spokes-man Jamie Shea stressed positive aspects. The Yugoslav President "has begun to move from a position of almost total defiance of the international community to at least now saying he accepts the key demands of the G8, which embody Nato's five conditions," he said. Mr Shea said the absolute minimum sign of Belgrade's good faith would be the total withdrawal of the Serbian police and military forces from Kosovo.

"Kosovo is a small place. Serbia is next door. So those forces could be withdrawn immediately," he said.

France and Germany said they wanted an urgent meeting of the G8 powers to discuss Mr Chernomyrdin's findings. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said it was not enough for Belgrade to accept the "general principles" of the G8 plan.

"I welcome the fact that President Milosevic has now agreed that he can accept the principles," he said on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend. "But he has got to go beyond a carefully phrased acceptance of the `general principles' into issues of real substance. The real substance is there in the key Nato demands." Nato's conditions for peace are a Serb pull-out, the return of refugees, a deal on an international peace force in Kosovo and an agreement on Kosovo's future political status.

The alliance is also demanding the handover of indicted war criminals for prosecution although, as Mr Milosevic has now been indicted for crimes against humanity by the Hague-based International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, he is unlikely to budge on that issue.

In the meantime, Nato continued to increase the pace and intensity of its bombing campaign yesterday, raining missiles on transport and telecommunications sites. Last week Nato chiefs said they were ready to start 24-hour bombing raids over Yugoslavia.

While Belgrade may be playing for time or attempting to split Nato with its latest talk of peace, diplomats and military experts believe Mr Milosevic may really want an agreement that will alow it to save face. US military chiefs recently said Nato's air war had enabled the Kosovo Liberation Army to expand its forces from about 5,000 to 15,000 fighters. At the weekend the force boasted of opening up new supply routes to its forces confronting the Serb military inside the province.

Past experience from the Bosnian and Croatian wars of the early Nineties teaches that Belgrade invariably pushes hard for a diplomatic settlement as soon as it fears it is about to lose its military advantage on the ground.