War in the Balkans: Serbs show signs of buckling

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The Independent Online
AS TOP Russian and American officials met in Moscow and the refugee crisis on Kosovo's border reached breaking point, Yugoslavia yesterday sent out what could be its most serious feelers yet to end the war, suggesting it might be ready to accept a UN-led international peacekeeping force in the province.

Although the precise status of the offer was unclear, emanating as it did from Vuk Draskovic, the unpredictable Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister, rather than President Slobodan Milosevic himself, allied diplomats last night saw it as evidence that Belgrade might at last be starting to buckle under the pressure of five weeks of increasingly severe bombing.

As if sensing weakness in its opponent, Nato last night vowed an even more ferocious aerial campaign. The attacks so far were "only a fraction" of what was come, the alliance's supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, warned. As a result of the bombing and an intensifying oil blockade, "step by step, bit by bit, we are cutting off his ability to sustain his forces in Kosovo".

Stepping up the economic and military encirclement of Belgrade, President Bill Clinton last night authorised the call-up of 33,000 reservists, and announced that Washington is preparing a blanket embargo on exports of goods to Yugoslavia.

Nato intensified its action as thousands more refugees arrived in Macedonia, pushing camps way beyond capacity and raising fears among aid officials that disease could sweep the camps. "We arejammed to the breaking point," said Ron Redmont, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He said that 3,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees arrived yesterday at the Blace crossing, while at least another 1,000 each crossed at Lojane and at Lipkovo.

Speaking at a crowded press conference in Belgrade, Mr Draskovic called on Russia and the West to reach a compromise on the peace force, which would be enshrined in a United Nations resolution. Though he admitted he had not directly discussed the proposal with Mr Milosevic, he said that it had been agreed by the Yugoslav President in talks last week with Russia's special Kosovo envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Whatever his authority, Mr Draskovic's words only underscore how Moscow, to all intents and purposes Belgrade's sole supporter in the conflict, has become the fulcrum of the sudden surge in diplomatic efforts to find a solution.

The early signs were that lengthy talks in Moscow between Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Mr Chernomyrdin and the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, did not succeed in generating a breakthrough, beyond ending Moscow's long isolation on the Kosovo issue.

There was "no question that Russia and the US are working together on this problem," was all Mr Talbott would say afterwards, describing his discussions as "frank, serious and constructive" - a thinly coded acknowledgement that although the meeting had been valuable, both sides had aired, and failed to resolve, their differences.

Chief among these is Moscow's insistence, echoing that of Belgrade, that the first step must be a unilateral halt in the Nato bombing and a restarting of negotiations. The West's reply is that there is nothing to negotiate until Mr Milosevic pulls out his forces, allowing a Nato-dominated international peacekeeping force to move in, and almost 700,000 Kosovo Albanian deportees to return home. Without guarantees on that point, there can be no bombing pause.

The gap, however, does seem more bridgeable on the make-up of the international force, whose flat rejection at the Rambouillet peace talks by Mr Milosevic in mid-March led directly to the start of the war. Even Nato accepts that a Russian contingent is essential, while Mr Draskovic acknowledged that Nato countries could not be denied a part in it.

Re-emerging amid the spate of diplomatic activity and Mr Draskovic's demarche is the German peace plan drawn up at the start of April, initially rebuffed by Bonn's Nato allies as too soft on Mr Milosevic but now the prime Western plan on the table. Once Mr Milosevic starts to pull out his forces from Kosovo, it would grant a 24-hour break in the air strikes, to be extended if the withdrawal continues.

Last night, Mr Talbott was in Berlin for talks with German ministers and the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, himself on the way to Moscow.