War in the Balkans: Serbs offer `to settle on G8 terms'

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The Independent Online
YUGOSLAVIA OFFERED to end the Kosovo crisis under the terms put forward by the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations and Russia, sparking cautious optimism as plans for a peace mission to Belgrade were being finalised.

The new note of compromise struck by Belgrade yesterday, which emerged in a statement issued by the state-run Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug, was interpreted in Western capitals as a sign that President Slobodan Milosevic is moving slowly towards a settlement.

The first real signs of diplomatic progress raised thestakes as the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, prepared to visit Belgrade tomorrow, planning to report back to a meeting of European Union heads of government in Cologne on Thursday.

A flurry of diplomatic activity in Bonn today will prepare the ground for the mission. Mr Ahtisaari is due to meet Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, and Victor Chernomyrdin, Russia's Balkan envoy, who will visit Belgrade with the Finnish President.

Yesterday's announcement from Tanjug in Belgrade may set the scene for a crucial week of negotiation.

"Yugoslavia has accepted the G8 principles and thinks a UN Security Council resolution ... should enable the transfer of the resolution of the crisis from the military to the political sphere," it said.

Although key areas of difference still remain between what Yugoslavia is likely to accept and Nato's terms, Bonn and Paris welcomed the development. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was more cautious.

The signals from Belgrade may be designed mainly to try to divide Nato hawks, such as Britain, from the doves. In Bonn the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, who is under acute domestic pressure over the crisis, said that "things are starting to move in a way that they haven't been moving before", adding that the days ahead would be decisive.

At a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, said he hoped that Mr Ahtisaari's visit to Belgrade "could bring back what we are waiting for".

But he said Belgrade had to accept the West's terms before Nato could suspend military action.

Mr Cook, who spoke to Mr Ahtisaari yesterday, said he warmly welcomed his initiative, and described the statement from Belgrade as a "step forward".

He added: "The fact that he [Milosevic] is making this offer demonstrates that he is under pressure."

But he said the Yugoslav President "has to move beyond principles to real substance if he's to prove that he is serious".

The difference of emphasis between Bonn and London reflects the gap between what Belgrade now says it has signed up to and the formal demands of the alliance.

The G8 solution, which would be enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, states that an international civilian and security presence must be allowed into Kosovo. It does not mention Nato by name although the alliance is insisting that its troops must be the "core" of any force deployed in Kosovo to ensure the safety of the returning refugees.

One idea floated by the Russians is that Nato countries could be deployed in Kosovo as long as they did not come from countries that had played a prominent part in the bombing campaign.

Mr Cook yesterday rejected that notion, however. "If it is to be a credible force it has to have a Nato core and for that to be practical and to function is has to have the major Nato members," Mr Cook said.

He spoke after meeting Hasim Thaqi, leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Mr Thaqi was reported to have told Mr Cook he feared Serbia was preparing another big military offensive in Kosovo.

British officials remain sceptical that President Milosevic is willing to accept a complete withdrawal of his forces from Kosovo, and suspect that what Belgrade wants is a partition of the province.

This would mean Russian troops - friendly to Serbia - being stationed in areas where Serbs are concentrated.

In Moscow yesterday Mr Chernomyrdin admitted that the make-up of a peace- keeping force "is the most difficult question that still remains".

But the Russian Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, struck a more upbeat note after discussing the Kosovo crisis with President Boris Yeltsin. "There are signs that even this situation, which originally seemed to be intractable, may be settled after all," he said.

Washington said it was not clear Belgrade had agreed to all the conditions needed to end the bombing.