Prague, 24 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Kosovo peace talks continued near Paris yesterday beyond their latest deadline, news reports from the province -- as well as from neighboring Albania -- portray a region on the brink of all-out war rather than on the verge of peace. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said this afternoon that the Kosovar Albanians have conditionally accepted a political agreement on autonomy. The agreement, however, is subject to a two-week delay to consult grass-roots supporters and guerrilla fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).
The two sides have been talking at Rambouillet near the French capital for two weeks, with little substantial progress having been reported until yesterday. The main sticking points have been a Kosovar Albanian demand for a referendum on the majority ethnic-Albanian province's status within three years and Belgrade's adamant refusal to tolerate foreign troops on its soil, regardless of the threat of NATO air strikes.
Indicating possible problems ahead, UCK spokesman Albin Kurti said today in Pristina, the provincial capital, that the Rambouillet talks "are not just and do not bring freedom for the Albanian people." He said the UCK will not agree to "any kind of laying down of arms or transformation."
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters at Rambouillet yesterday that the ethnic Albanians will be the big losers if they do not agreed to an accord:
"The people of Kosovo will lose a lot if they are unable to get the self-government they deserve, the Serb forces out [as] they deserve, and the NATO forces in that they deserve. They are the ones that will not gain if that doesn't happen."
The official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug says the Yugoslav delegation "has basically accepted the proposal for a political agreement on autonomy for Kosovo over a transitional period." But the Yugoslav delegation has balked at agreeing to the military part of the package. Permitting foreign troops -- particularly if NATO-led -- on Yugoslav soil could be perceived as a sign of weakness by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the beginning of the end of Serbian control over the province.
Belgrade appears to perceive the threat of air strikes as largely bluster. All the more so in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's remarks to reporters after the first deadline expired on Saturday. She said NATO will not stage air strikes against Yugoslav military targets if neither the Kosovar Albanians nor the Yugoslav delegation agree to both the political and military parts of the Contact Group's proposed peace agreement.
Nevertheless, Belgrade has mobilized reservists and extended the basic service of the current batch of draftees who had been due to be discharged in March.
Milosevic -- having presided over the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and having served alternately as a war-maker and a peacemaker in Bosnia -- knows when to compromise and when to stand firm. He has managed to placate much of the opposition in Serbia by co-opting them into the government.
Kosovo is a rallying point around which most Serbs agree. They perceive Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization, as their spiritual home. It's a land, however, where few Serbs are willing to live, due to ever-worsening ethnic animosities, as well as an absence of jobs and infrastructure. If no agreement is reached soon, both sides seem poised for a resumption of fighting as soon as warmer weather allows. There will be many losers if that happens: the civilian population in Kosovo -- regardless of ethnicity; Kosovo's neighbors -- Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and the ethnic Bosnian-Muslim Sandzak region of southern Serbia; and the U.S. and NATO's Balkan policies.
State Department spokesman Rubin said that while the two sides did not reach an accord, much progress has been made:
"We've got a situation where an enormous number of decisions have been made by both sides, on a constitution, on an assembly, on self-government for the Kosovar Albanians, on giving them their own cultural rights [including] rights of education.... [But] we can't go further and put military pressure we think ought to be put on [Yugoslav] President [Slobodan] Milosevic if the Kosovar Albanians don't say yes."
The worst violence so far this year in Kosovo erupted yesterday as Yugoslav forces battled ethnic Albanian insurgents in the northwest of the province near Vucitrn. That violence continued today with reports that five policemen and one U.S. news photographer (AP) were injured in clashes in the same area.
In Geneva yesterday, the spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kris Janowski, said the renewed clashes in Kosovo have driven an estimated 9,000 people from their homes since the weekend.
A senior Serbian official in Pristina, Zoran Andjelkovic -- who heads the Provisional Executive Council of Kosovo -- today accused ethnic Albanian fighters of staging the attacks to provoke Belgrade to respond and create -- as he put it -- "a show about an alleged refugee catastrophe."
Amid all this, neighboring Albania has become increasingly fearful that Yugoslavia will instigate a war with Tirana.
Albanian President Rexhep Meidani and the heads of the armed forces yesterday ordered a heightened state of alert along Albania's border with Yugoslavia because of what Tirana alleges have been "frequent provocations by Serbian forces."
For nearly a year, the mountainous border between Albania and Kosovo has been the scene of bloody shootouts between Yugoslav border troops and ethnic Albanian gunrunners. There have also been frequent border incursions -- sometimes violent -- by Yugoslav soldiers on Albanian soil.
The independent Tirana daily Koha Jone says all able-bodied men in the Kukes border district have received draft orders, while the elderly, women and children have been assigned shelters in the event of war. The paper says "the shadow of war is approaching Albania's border with Yugoslavia" and notes Yugoslav border troops over the weekend laid huge concrete barricades across the Kukes-Prizren road on the Albanian and Yugoslav customs posts to block any form of traffic.
In an ominous remark, the Yugoslav charge d'affaires in Tirana (Vukicevic) told officials at the Albanian Foreign ministry over the weekend that they "expect war" after having been summoned to receive a protest note over what Albania terms "the latest acts of provocation committed by the Serbs on the Albanian border."