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Yugoslavia: Diplomats Hold Out Hope For Kosovo Peace Agreement

Prague, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With just two days until peace talks on Kosovo are due to resume in France, the top U.S. envoy has yet to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a Western-backed settlement for the rebellious province.

After eight hours of talks on Wednesday (March 10) in Belgrade, U.S. mediator Richard Holbrooke reported "no change" in Milosevic's refusal to accept the stationing of NATO troops in the southern Serbian province -- a key part of the deal. Holbrooke -- who is returning to Washington on Thursday to brief the Clinton administration on his talks with Milosevic -- remained upbeat to reporters:

"To call that a complete failure -- if I can be very blunt -- is completely wrong. It was a meeting which was very important, but the importance of it will not be clear until later. Now we move back to the next round of negotiations that take place in France."

Much like the first round at Rambouillet, outside Paris, Monday's resumption of the Kosovo peace talks looks set to begin under pressure -- if at all.

Talks were suspended on February 23 after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright failed to win ethnic Albanian approval for the plan, which provides for autonomy for the province but not independence. The ethnic Albanians still have not formally signed the agreement, but western diplomats -- from Holbrooke to Albright to the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill -- remain optimistic they will do so within days.

Without the ethnic Albanians in agreement, NATO cannot carry out threatened air strikes on Serb targets in an effort to force Milosevic to agree.

Under further terms of the peace plan, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) must disarm, which is also proving to be a serious obstacle for the secessionist-minded rebel soldiers. A UCK representative in London, Pleurat Sejdiu, said yesterday the UCK will not sign the agreement as long as Serb forces continue to use force against the rebels.

Meanwhile, the burden of diplomacy transferred to Russia with the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Belgrade. Holbrooke earlier said Ivanov will be carrying a "strong" message from Moscow to Belgrade to make progress in the Kosovo talks.

Before leaving Moscow, Ivanov said in a joint press conference with the current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek -- that he still believes a peace deal in Kosov is possible. It is uncertain whether Russia -- with its close ties to the Serbs -- will be more successful in convincing Milosevic to accept foreign troops on Yugoslav soil. Russia has consistently advocated that any peace agreement respect Yugoslav sovereignty and has opposed NATO air strikes.

In a hard-line statement issued (March 10), Milosevic's office said the president told Holbrooke that foreign troops have "no business" in Kosovo. A similarly stark message was delivered before the United Nations in New York yesterday by Belgrade's ambassador to the United Nations, Vladislav Jovanovic. His comments were broadcast on British television (BBC):

"All our history is the proof that we can never capitulate, we can never surrender a part of our country -- or the country as a whole -- without fighting and fighting resiliently and fearlessly."

Inside Kosovo, tensions are still running high between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels. Fresh fighting is reported in southern Kosovo, while OSCE monitors report a heavy Serbian army buildup along roads in the southwest.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata again expressed her grave concern about the rising level of violence in Kosovo and the resulting forced displacements. Ogata said a political solution is "desperately needed" to put an end to the humanitarian crisis and avert disaster.