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Yugoslavia: Contact Group Issues Peace Talks Ultimatum Over Kosovo

London, 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Contact Group on former Yugoslavia decided today to summon representatives of Belgrade and the Kosovo Albanians for immediate talks aimed a securing a political solution to the conflict in the southern Serbian province.

The summons was issued after a meeting in London of the six Contact Group members: Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and the United States. They said the talks must begin within a week.

The Contact Group held out the promise of substantial autonomy although not full independence for Serbia's southern province of Kosovo where ethnic Albanian outnumber Serbs by nine-to-one.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who chaired today's talks, flies to Belgrade tomorrow to deliver the ultimatum to President Slobodan Milosevic and then goes on Sunday to deliver the same message to ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.

The new international peace initiative follows reports of renewed fighting in Kosovo, where 2,000 people have died and 300,000 have lost their homes in months of ethnic violence.

Cook will deliver the Contact Group summons to both sides to meet in Rambouillet, France, by February 6 under the co-chairmanship of himself and the French Foreign Minister.

On the eve of the London talks, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said the next few days will mark "a critical turning point", adding that the alliance is "ready to act" if the violence continues, a reminder that a threat of NATO air strikes is still on the table.

A Contact Group statement today said the escalation of violence � for which both Belgrade's security forces and the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army were responsible -- "must be stopped."

It also says repression of civilians by the Serb security forces must end and those forces must be withdrawn.

The Contact Group ministers called "on both sides to end the cycle of violence and to commit themselves to a process of negotiation leading to a political settlement."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a press conference that the peace proposals drafted by Contact Group negotiators envisage substantial autonomy for Kosovo.

"This approach foresees substantial autonomy for Kosovo while maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). It will create Kosovo institutions ensuring self-governance for Kosovo, and it includes full protection for people of all ethnicities."

The Contact Group has set an unusually tight timetable in a bid to force representatives of both sides to reach an agreement.

They decided -- assuming that both sides agree to show up for the peace conference in France -- that participants should work to conclude the negotiations within seven days. Their negotiators will then report back to the Contact Group ministers who will assess whether the progress made justifies a further period of less than one week to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.

"At the end of that week either the parties will have agreed or they will not. If they have not, we will draw the appropriate conclusions. We have sent the parties an unmistakable message: "Get serious!" Showing up is not going to be good enough."

The Contact Group said it recognizes that continuing international engagement will be needed to help both sides implement a settlement and rebuild the shattered province.

In the meantime, it called on Belgrade to stop all offensive actions and repression in Kosovo, comply fully with international agreements, and promote the safe return of refugees. It also called on Belgrade to cooperate fully with the U.N. war crimes prosecutors investigating the killings of 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak.

The statement also condemns all "provocations" by the Kosovo Albanians and insists that all hostages should be freed. It calls on their leaders to "rally behind negotiations to reach a settlement and end provocative actions, which could impede the political process."

The statement says the future of the people of Kosovo "is in the hands of leaders in Belgrade and Kosovo." It says they must commit themselves now to complete the negotiations on a political settlement with 21 days to bring peace to Kosovo."

It says the Contact Group will hold both sides accountable "if they fail to take the opportunity now offered to them."