ANY DECISION on carrying out punitive air strikes against Serbia to end the conflict in Kosovo is almost certain to hinge on the report brought to Brussels this morning by the special US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, following his talks over the past three days with the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr Holbrooke is due to meet the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the Secretary General of Nato, Javier Solana, at Nato headquarters early today. Arriving in Brussels from Belgrade last night, he refused to answer reporters' questions about his latest meeting early yesterday with Mr Milosevic.
It was unclear whether Mr Holbrooke would then accompany Mrs Albright to a meeting of foreign ministers of the Contact Group of countries that is expected to take place in London some time later today.
If he reports that he has made progress with Mr Milosevic, he may instead return immediately to Belgrade.
Some Western diplomats indicated last night that Mr Holbrooke had, in fact, made headway in persuading Mr Milosevic to withdraw his security forces from the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo and to enter a political dialogue with local leaders on granting the province some interim status of autonomy. The Albanians themselves are demanding total independence.
If that is Mr Holbrooke's assessment, discussion at the Contact Group may focus less on preparations for a military strike and more on how a political settlement for Kosovo could be enforced on the ground, the diplomats said.
While one option would be to deploy a military force to keep peace in the region, possibly composed of both Western and Russian troops, most Western governments are likely to favour a civilian monitoring mission. James Rubin, the spokesman for Mrs Albright, yesterday made clear that no decision on ordering air strikes was likely today, in any event. "Nobody is in a rush to use force," he told reporters.
The Contact Group meeting, now described as a "stock taking exercise", has itself been a measure of international diplomatic confusion over Kosovo. First the meeting was on. Then the Foreign Office said it would not take place. Last night there was another reversal, as it was announced that the talks would take place after all, possibly at Heathrow airport. In Brussels, Mr Solana said it was up to Nato to make a final decision on air strikes, and that the defence body had no need to defer to the United Nations Security Council. "Nato [allies] take decisions on their own," he said.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) yesterday turned down an invitation from the Serbian authorities to send an observer mission to Kosovo. It said Belgrade had attempted to dictate in advance what such a mission would find, namely that the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province had already taken place. The International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, announced yesterday that Serbia had refused to allow its officials to investigate reported atrocities in Kosovo, in spite of a request for them to do so from the Security Council. As the crisis looked as if it might yet tilt either way, Western leaders last night were hoping for a last-minute Serbian climbdown. "At the moment we are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, said.
President Bill Clinton called on Mr Milosevic once more to respect UN resolutions and withdraw his forces. "If he does that, he completely complies. He doesn't have to worry about military force," he said.
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