War In The Balkans: UN charges threaten to doom diplomatic solution

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THE WAR crimes indictment of Slobodan Milosevic looked to have doomed the latest attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the Kosovo crisis yesterday, and increased the likelihood that President Milosevic will choose to fight to the finish over the province.

Almost 24 hours of non-stop talks between top Russian and US officials and the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, ended with no agreed position that Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Kremlin's Kosovo envoy, would present to Mr Milosevic when he travels to Belgrade today.

But Mr Ahtisaari, the West's representative, will not be going with him. This is confirmation that no breakthrough has been achieved. Mr Ahtisaari returned home while the US envoy, deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, went to Bonn.

As the talks were going on, Mr Chernomyrdin delivered a scathing broadside against Nato in The Washington Post, accusing the alliance of seeking to set up a protectorate in Kosovo, and of setting back relations between Russia and the US "by several decades".

He called for an immediate end to the "pointless" air war and warned that the ground war that the allies are preparing for would bring "tremendous bloodshed". Mr Chernomyrdin repeated his threat to abandon peace efforts entirely unless the raids stopped soon.

Differences over the size of the force Mr Milosevic will be allowed to keep in Kosovo have narrowed over the past two days, but Nato and Moscow are still far apart on terms for a halt in the bombing and over the make-up of the international peace keeping force.

The war crimes indictment - the first against a serving head of government - adds another sticking point. Mr Milosevic had been adamant any deal should guarantee his immunity. That is now plainly out of the question.

"We will fully co-operate with the tribunal and press for all those indicted to stand trial," Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said, ruling out any formula that would permit Mr Milosevic to escape prosecution. Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, said it would change nothing, "since we never intended to negotiate with him anyway".