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Yugoslavia: Kosovars Prepared To Sign Deal, But Questions Remain

Prague, 9 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The status of international efforts to mediate a peace deal for the rebellious Serbian province of Kosovo remains in doubt despite repeated U.S. assurances of progress.

A key question remains whether, and if so, when, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian community -- including the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) -- will formally sign on to a Western plan.

The UCK has been the key Kosovar holdout. The United States announced yesterday that UCK leaders were prepared to sign a peace settlement, but there has been no clear indication when the deal will actually be signed.

The U.S. has exerted considerable effort to persuade the UCK leadership to fully accept the wide-ranging autonomy deal for the mainly ethnic-Albanian province that was negotiated last month in Rambouillet, near Paris.

U.S. special envoy Christopher Hill has been in periodic contact with UCK leaders and other representatives of the province's ethnic Albanian community. Last night, Hill was informed that UCK leaders had "approved" the peace deal at a special meeting. This was formally confirmed in Washington by U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin.

"Ambassador Hill has reported to the Secretary [of State] as follows: that the ... Kosovar Liberation Army General Staff has asked him to tell Secretary [Madeleine] Albright that they have approved the agreement as negotiated at Rambouillet and that they have authorized its signature."

But Rubin was quick to add that the U.S. needs more clarity on the timing. He said he will conclude that the agreement has been signed only "when it has been signed."

There have been reports in the Western media that UCK field commanders remain unwilling to give up their arms, an important element of the Rambouillet peace plan. They are also said to be anxious to find out if Russian troops will be included in any NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force and, if so, what role they will play. Russia has been Serbia's traditional ally, and the Kosovars are apparently wary that the Russians could support Serbian interests.

But the main issue for the Kosovars, it appears, is Belgrade's opposition to the deployment of foreign peacekeeping forces in the province. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has repeatedly said that he will never accept a settlement that calls for the presence of NATO forces in Kosovo. He reiterated this position yesterday at a meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Belgrade.

Such a peacekeeping force is generally regarded by the West -- as well as by the Kosovar Albanians themselves -- as being crucial for the implementation of any settlement and for maintaining peace in the province.

Speaking yesterday in London at a conference on NATO, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that to bring stability to Kosovo, an international force is "indispensable." He warned Milosevic that "NATO will not stand by in the face of renewed repression and atrocities in Kosovo."

Today, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told the same London conference that the deployment of a Kosovo Implementation Force could signal the beginning of an effort to put all Balkan countries on the path toward peace and stability. The U.S. appears determined to convince Milosevic of the need to accept the deployment of the NATO-led force through a combination of persuasion and pressure.

Special U.S. representative Richard Holbrooke -- a veteran Balkan negotiator -- arrived in Belgrade today. He is due to meet Milosevic tomorrow in an effort to persuade him to accept the peace plan and a NATO deployment.

Holbrooke is the architect of the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. He also negotiated with Milosevic a ceasefire in Kosovo last October.

The U.S. and its NATO allies are still holding out the threat of air strikes against Yugoslav forces if Belgrade fails to accept the settlement, does not abide by its provisions or tolerates further human rights abuses by its troops against Kosovar Albanians.

Holbrooke is certain to convey this message clearly and in no uncertain terms to the Yugoslav president.