Washington, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Washington will be watching closely as Serb representatives and ethnic Albanian leaders meet in the Kosovar capital, Prishtina, today to try and bridge their deep divisions.
At the State Department yesterday, spokeswoman Julie Reside said the U.S. hopes the parties will begin to make progress on concrete measures to reduce tensions and put an end to continuing sporadic violence in the Serb-ruled province.
"We have no illusions about the difficulties they face and the complexity of the problem," she said. "But we urge both sides to seize this opportunity to resolve their differences peacefully."
Today's meeting is intended to be the first of regular weekly working discussions between the two sides.
It is to be a direct, face-to-face discussion between Serb authorities and the Kosovar Albanians without mediation. But America's ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill, will be available if the parties run into difficulties and ask for his services.
Hill helped arrange today's meeting and is an experienced negotiator. Before becoming U.S. ambassador in Skopje, he was on the team of former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who is credited with ending the war in Bosnia and getting the parties to agree to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.
Holbrooke, now in the private sector, continues to act for the U.S. at the request of President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
He was in the region last week with the current top U.S. diplomat for the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of the Yugoslav Federation and Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova to negotiate.
Reside said Milosevic assumed personal responsibility for the negotiations that are to include discussions on the status of Kosova. "Milosevic has a special responsibility to ensure progress in lowering tensions," she said.
U.S. and western officials have blamed Milosevic for doing the opposite this week and almost derailing the planned talks.
Kosovar Albanians had said they might not attend today's session because of Serbian road blocks that stopped supply trucks from getting through and caused food shortages in parts of Kosova.
A State Department official -- who did not wish to be named -- told RFE/RL's correspondent that the U.S. raised the issue at the highest level in Belgrade, insisting that the situation change quickly.
The official said the U.S. is spending $6 million on humanitarian aid to Kosova and some of those supplies were being misdirected and prevented from going to Kosova by Serb police.
He said the U.S. will continue to pressure the Belgrade government to make sure that local authorities do not impede the free movement of goods to Kosova.
As for today's meeting in Prishtina, the official said the U.S. is well aware of the great gap in substance between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians and has no illusions about quick progress. "But they will be talking, and that's a beginning," he said.
The official said the U.S. will look for signs of goodwill, some steps that could reduce tensions and show the dialogue is being conducted in good faith.
The situation in Kosova, as well as a growing political crisis between Serbia and Montenegro, will be the focus of discussions next week at the European Union in Brussels and at a NATO meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
Gelbard plans to accompany Albright to the NATO meeting, which is to consider a range of military options on action NATO could take to contain the situation in Kosova and strengthen neighboring Albania and Macedonia.