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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Peace Talks Progress Slowly

Prague, 16 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The six-nation Contact Group yesterday extended the Kosovo peace talks at Rambouillet near Paris for a second and final week.

The foreign ministers of the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, Germany and Italy said progress during the first week was slower than had been hoped, but added, "essential ground clearing work has been carried out".

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine who chaired the Contact Group talks in Paris says, "it is now crucial that the parties reach agreement on the hard issues outstanding." He says the negotiations must be concluded by noon on Saturday, February 20.

This deadline might be stretched. A senior German diplomat (state secretary Ischinger) who is coordinator at the Rambouillet talks says that while it is very important to keep to the current timetable, the clock may be stopped at the end of the talks for a few hours or even a day should a short extension enable a successful conclusion.

Vedrine says the Contact Group ministers agreed that "this is a decisive moment for peace efforts for Kosovo and that "time is now very short to reach a negotiated settlement", as "the only way to avoid further large-scale violence leading to a humanitarian catastrophe". As he put it to French radio last night, "they now know that they face the hour of truth".

The Contact Group says it will hold both sides accountable if they "fail to take this opportunity."

The Contact Group offered a carrot as well as a stick saying: "provided the parties are ready to live up to their responsibilities to reach an interim political settlement, the international community is willing to devote significant civilian and military resources to help all the people of Kosovo to rebuild their lives in conditions of security".

The European Union's 15 foreign ministers, meeting in Paris (Feb.14), discussed helping Kosovo through economic reconstruction and refugee assistance. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the 15 unanimously backed sending aid if the Rambouillet peace talks are successful. The first week of talks were hampered by the refusal of the Yugoslav delegation to negotiate directly with the Kosovar Albanian delegation because of the presence of leaders of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). The two delegations occupy separate floors at Rambouillet chateau.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with the two delegations (Feb. 14) in a bid to allay concerns on a change in Kosovo's status. Reuters quotes one unnamed U.S. diplomat as saying "throughout the entire day she tried to get people over their 19th century views that somehow autonomy and sovereignty are totally in conflict." Albright later told reporters that she had brought the leaders of the two delegations together for their first direct meeting. She said both sides told her and each other that they recognized that they had an historic opportunity, that the killing must stop, that time is short". Albright said she hoped this joint meeting between the two delegations would be a model for the talks in the coming days.

Albright said the Kosovar delegation seems to accept the Contact Group's peace plan -- the text of which has not been made public -- as a "fair deal" and appears ready to sign it by the deadline. Albright said the two sides face a fork in the road. As she put it, "one fork is to disaster, chaos and more killing; the other fork leads back to a rational solution that will achieve peace, democracy and human rights for all the people of Kosovo". She warned "the threat of NATO air strikes remains real". Albright had a brief, tense meeting in Paris yesterday with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic. She said afterwards she "had a sense that they know what they have to do, but it is very difficult."

Milutinovic told reporters in Paris today, "there is no need for foreign troops," saying they would be superfluous if all sides agree on a peace deal. He denounced NATO's threat of air strikes if the peace talks fail. In Milutinovic's words, "bombing cannot resolve anything -- it would be aggression against a sovereign country, a war crime and a crime against humanity." Milutinovic says Yugoslavia is being threatened solely because it is defending its own sovereignty. He says such threats amount to support for terrorism and for terrorists -- the term Belgrade uses to refer to the UCK. NATO has made it clear it will not send ground troops to Kosovo without an agreement with Belgrade.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after listening to Milutinovic's concerns (Feb. 14), "Yugoslavia is a sovereign state, and any mission -- civil or military -- which is deployed in Yugoslavia, is possible only with the agreement of the Belgrade authorities".

Milutinovic expressed concern about the direction the Rambouillet talks are taking, away from the Contact Group's basic points, acceptance of which was the foundation for the talks. In his words, "We are for a unique document without annexes which will stipulate a clear and broad autonomy for Kosovo but which will also secure the Serbian state's presence in Kosovo". He again ruled out granting Kosovo republic status within the Yugoslav federation or even independence.

The independent Belgrade news agency Beta last night in a report from Brussels published details of what it says is a draft of the military annex to the agreement under discussion at Rambouillet this week. The annex reportedly calls for an immediate end to military activities and the grouping of Yugoslav military and special police forces in Kosovo in specified locations and their withdrawal from the province within 180 days.

However, a maximum of 1,500 border guards of the Yugoslav army would be permitted to remain within a five-kilometer-wide border zone along Kosovo's frontier with Albania and Macedonia. A maximum of 2,500 Serbian policemen would be allowed to remain in Kosovo after the agreement takes effect. The accord reportedly provides for the complete disarmament of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) within four months.

The draft annex reaffirms Yugoslavia's sovereignty and territorial integrity while providing for the deployment of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to be known as KFOR.