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Yugoslavia: U.S. Envoy To Belgrade, Kosovo Crisis In '11th Hour'

Washington/Belgrade/Pristina; 22 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke has arrived in Belgrade to offer Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic what is being described as a final chance to accept a peace deal for Kosovo or face NATO air strikes. Holbrooke, who is to meet tonight with Milosevic, said earlier today that he is not optimistic that he can persuade the Yugoslav president. At the White House in Washington, spokesman Joe Lockhart said Holbrooke will deliver what he called "a stark message" to Milosevic that he must sign the peace deal or face air strikes. The Pentagon warned that any air strikes will be "very significant."

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that the Kosovo crisis had reached a critical "11th hour."

In a sign of the deepening crisis, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana cancelled a planned trip to Prague (for Wednesday and Thursday) to stay at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov reiterated Russian opposition to NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia and said there are still ways to solve the Kosovo crisis diplomatically.

He said Russia is, as he put it, "categorically opposed" to NATO air strikes to punish Belgrade for refusing to sign a peace accord on Kosovo. He was speaking to journalists in Moscow after a meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Primakov warned that the use of force would have, in his words, a "great destabilizing effect" not just in Yugoslavia but in Europe as a whole.

Primakov did not directly answer questions about whether his visit to the U.S., set to begin tomorrow, could be affected if NATO launches air strikes against Serbia.

NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia responded today to the possibility of NATO air strikes against Serbia by saying they will take whatever steps are necessary to keep the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. NATO troops are stationed in Bosnia in accordance with the 1995 Dayton accords.

Lieutenant Commander Sheena Tomson, spokeswoman for the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia, said army and senior government officials in Republika Srpska -- the Serbian half of Bosnia -- have given assurances that they will not get involved in any way with the Kosovo campaign.

Tomson also said that the air defense systems in the Republika Srpska have been switched off since the Dayton Accords were signed and cannot be used by Belgrade to defend against NATO air strikes. On the ground in Kosovo today, the Yugoslav Army is continuing an offensive that has left several ethnic Albanian villages in flames and sent more than 25,000 Kosovar Albanians fleeing their homes since Saturday.