War In The Balkans: Serbs edge towards peace deal

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PEACE IN Yugoslavia looked as if it was again within reach last night as Russia backed Western calls for a speedy UN resolution setting up a peace-keeping force for Kosovo.

After failed talks between Nato and Serb generals in Kumanovo, Macedonia, after which Nato redoubled its bombing, Belgrade appeared to be suing for peace again. It also called for prompt adoption of a Security Council resolution to enable it to claim the force was under UN auspices and did not constitute a Nato invasion.

All afternoon in Bonn, G8 foreign ministers, comprising Russia and leading Nato powers, worked over and again the draft as Moscow's objections narrowed to a few key areas: overall authority of the UN to impose a settlement, references to a war-crimes tribunal and the shape of the peace force to go in after a Serb withdrawal. On each point differences were narrowing. "I am very pleased," the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said. There was a "good prospect" that a virtually complete document could be finalised, ready to send to the UN in New York.

It calls for a UN-supervised civil administration and a military force in which Nato's central role will be explicitly or implicitly recognised, complete with a single chain of command. The issue of a possible Russian zone in Kosovo, raising the spectre of partition, was not even raised, diplomats said.

By all accounts it was a sudden change of heart by the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov - prompted by Russia's Serbian allies - that transformed the atmosphere."Ivanov has clearly been told to come here and get the best deal he can," one diplomat said.

If a G8 deal sticks, peace would have moved a big, possibly decisive, step closer. A diplomatic framework would be in place, and Slobodan Milosevic would have lost his chance of playing off Russians against the West in a last bid to wriggle out of his predicament.

There was a big stir in Bonn yesterday with the arrival of the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, co-author of the plan accepted by Mr Milosevic last week. Mr Ahtisaari, who had earlier spoken with the Yugoslav president, urged the ministers to nail down a text as swiftly as possible. Mr Milosevic, he said, had assured him he intended to implement his undertakings.

Yesterday's meeting was all along going to be important. But after the refusal of the Yugoslav military to accept a timetable for withdrawal, it turned into what a Western foreign minister called a "crucial test" of Moscow's good faith over the plan largely drawn up by its envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and accepted by Mr Milosevic.

The resolution is central to the entire peace process, since the Ahtisaari- Chernomyrdin plan stipulated that the peace force, though containing a strong Nato component, should be under UN auspices. But without Russian assent in the Security Council there could be no resolution, and therefore no UN-sanctioned force nor the establishment of what would amount to a UN protectorate over Kosovo. The likely sequence of events to implement a settlement could start with dispatch of an agreed text to New York, followed by Yugoslav compliance in Kumanovo. Serb withdrawal would start, followed "almost simultaneously" by a bombing pause and a Security Council resolution, conceivably within 48 hours. Withdrawal would then be completed and K-For would move in, paving the way for the return of the refugees.