Wrangle delays plan for peace

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AS FIGHTING flared again in Kosovo yesterday, the West unveiled an ambitious peace plan aimed at a deal between Belgrade and ethnic Albanians before the end of February, granting wide autonomy to the Serbian province.

But even before the leading powers could formally issue invitations to a Dayton-style conference, both major putative participants were objecting. A senior Yugoslav minister said an internationally arranged conference would be "counterproductive", and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - crucial to any valid deal - again refused to make common cause with the political wing of the ethnic Albanian majority led by Ibrahim Rugova.

Today Nato is expected to issue an uncompromising warning to Slobodan Milosevic that he faces air strikes if he does not pull back his police and army units. Tomorrow, the Contact Group - Britain, the US, France, Italy, Germany and Russia - will convene the conference, probably Austria.

It would start within a week, and last a fortnight. The proposed interim deal is based on the draft prepared by the US envoy, Christopher Hill, giving Kosovo an independent parliament and its own judiciary, police and education system. Elections would be held in six months, and all would be up for review after three years, in theory leaving open the option of full independence.

The conference, which would start as "proximity talks" before moving to face-to-face negotiations, would be mediated by Mr Hill and his European Union opposite number Wolfgang Petritsch. On agreement, Nato troops would "likely" be sent in to police the deal initially, said diplomats.