War In The Balkans: `Take it or leave it' deal finalised

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The Independent Online
PEACE ENVOYS from Russia and the European Union are heading for Belgrade today to present President Slobodan Milosevic with a take-it- or-leave-it deal designed to end the Kosovo conflict.

Talks in Bonn last night involving top representatives of Russia, the EU and the United States had made "substantial progress", according to the host, Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor.

"We are facing probably decisive days," the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, had said before the Bonn meeting. It brought together for the first time Russia's envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the EU's envoy, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and the US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott.

After the meeting, Mr Ahtisaari conceded that the West and Russia were not "100 per cent in agreement". But both sides had accepted that the international forces going into Kosovo would have to be able to guarantee the safety of returning refugees. "From that it follows that the participation of certain countries is of vital importance," Mr Ahtisaari said.

That was a reference to the biggest pitfall. Nato insists that it must be at the core of any peace-keeping mission. Belgrade until now has rejected that, and Russia has yet to agree to it formally.

The West and Russia agreed on 6 May to a set of principles at the G8 meeting, also held in Bonn. This time, they will be giving the message to President Milosevic together, when Belgrade's resolve is visibly weakening.

Before yesterday's meeting, Yugoslavia had forwarded to Germany its formal "acceptance" of the G8 peace plan. "Yugoslavia has accepted the G8 principles, including a United Nations presence, mandate and other elements to be decided by a UN Security Council resolution," states the letter sent by Zivadin Jovanovic, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, to his German colleague.

The letter does not address the question of Nato troops, or the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces. Britain greeted the apparent peace signals from Belgrade with caution, while Mr Fischer said that the moment was finely balanced between a possible breakthrough and a worsening conflict.

Mr Chernomyrdin cautioned against false hope. "We'll hope to find a solution," was all he would say about his trip to Belgrade.

The key to solving this conflict still lies in Belgrade. The two main sticking points involve the number of troops Belgrade will be allowed to keep in a post-war Kosovo and the make-up of the "effective" international peace-keeping force stipulated by the G8 last month.

Yugoslavia wants to retain the 11,000-plus men in the province permitted by last October's abortive ceasefire agreement. Nato is adamant that all Serb military and paramilitary forces must pull out, except a few to guard Serb holy sites and maintain a token presence on the border.

President Milosevic has said the peace-keeping force must be UN-controlled, and contain no soldiers from countries that took part in the bombing campaign.

The allies say that unless heavily armed British, French and US units are involved, K-For simply will not persuade the 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to return home.