War In The Balkans: What stands between us and peace?

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The Independent Online
DESPITE THIS week's three-way flurry of negotiations between Belgrade, the Russians and the West, at least four areas of disagreement stand in the way of a diplomatic solution to the Kosovo war: the timing of a bombing halt; the make-up of any peace-keeping force; the size of a post-conflict Serbian presence in the province; and whether war criminals would be prosecuted.

On their own these are major obstacles to a settlement. Complicating matters further is Nato's refusal to negotiate with a man it brands a war criminal. Like it or not, however, negotiation by proxy has already begun.

t The bombing halt: The major Nato powers - Britain, France, the US and Germany - insist that the airstrikes will only stop when Yugoslav forces have "demonstrably" started to withdraw from Kosovo on the basis of a settlement enshrined in a UN resolution. But Belgrade, and more importantly Russia (backed by China), say no resolution can be agreed until the bombing stops. Nato doves like Italy take a midway position, calling for a bombing halt as soon as Russia and China sign a UN resolution. This may prove to be what happens.

t The peacekeeping force: From the outset, this has been the problem which has most taxed the diplomats and which almost certainly was at the heart of last night's new round of talks in Moscow between the Russian envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Strobe Talbott, the American Deputy Secretary of State, and the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari.

Nato is adamant that it must provide the core of the "effective" international security force agreed by the Group of Eight major powers, including Russia, on May 6.

The UN resolution need not explicitly refer to Nato, the alliance says, and the K-FOR force which enters Kosovo may technically be a UN operation and have a sizeable Russian element - but its backbone must consist of Nato troops and Nato heavy weapons under Nato command.

Russia, which has been trying to broker a compromise with Belgrade, accepts the idea of a well-armed international force with some Nato component. But, it says, other countries must take part, the force must be accountable to the UN, and President Milosevic must first give his approval.

Mr Milosevic seems to be coming round to the idea of an international force. But his version has a small to non-existent Nato element, excludes troops from any country involved in the bombing, is lightly armed and would operate alongside Serb forces. The gulf seems huge between the public positions of Belgrade and the West.

t The Serb presence: While Belgrade wants a significant role in Kosovo, the West (and the refugees) will not tolerate a substantial Yugoslav presence. Nato will countenance no more than a few hundred men to guard Serb shrines, monuments and frontier posts: this would symbolize how, notionally at least, Kosovo would juridically remain part of Yugoslavia.

t War Crimes: This is a latent but potentially deadly problem. Provision for war crimes charges to be brought for massacres and other atrocities in Kosovo was contained in the draft UN resolution which G-8 deputies will again work on today. Britain and the US say they will not sanction a settlement which bars prosecutions. President Milosevic is opposed: not surprising, given that he would top any list of suspects.