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Yugoslavia: Talks Open In Paris, No Prediction Of Success

Prague, March 15 (NCA) -- The second and possibly final round of Kosovo peace talks opened today in Paris, but with few predictions of success and against a background of continuing violence in the Serbian province.

Talks last month in Rambouillet, near Paris, broke up after 18 inconclusive days when ethnic Albanian negotiators demanded a delay to consult their ranks at home about a Western-proposed peace plan.

The plan calls for a three-year interim period of autonomy for Kosovo, the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province and the disarming of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

The Serbian negotiators have opposed the plan because it also calls for a NATO-led peacekeeping force to shore up the deal.

The current talks are to focus on the implementation of the proposed settlement, especially the stationing of some 28,000 peacekeeping troops. According to the talk's organizers, political aspects, including the provisions for Kosovo's autonomy, are not open for further negotiation. The talks are due to be over by the end of the week.

But the prospects for a settlement are far from clear, largely because the public positions of the warring sides have changed little in the weeks since Rambouillet.

The ethnic Albanian negotiators have recently indicated that they may sign on to the deal, but this is still uncertain. They are apparently expecting that international mediators will force further concessions from the Serbian side.

Alain Destexe, president of the International Crisis Group on the former Yugoslavia, today told the BBC in Paris that the Kosovar Albanians are likely to sign. Destexe said, "There are some signs that they want some guarantee for disarmament, they don't want to exchange the disarmament against nothing. They want to be sure that there is going [to be a] credible NATO force on the ground. There is also some division among the [ethnic] Albanian delegation, but the key thing is that they should understand that it is in their own interest to sign today, because there is no perspective of peace in the short term without the [ethnic] Albanians signing the agreement."

The Serbs remain firmly opposed to any foreign military presence in the province. Recent diplomatic efforts, including one by U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke, to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept an international implementation force failed.

There is an assumption that if the Kosovar Albanians finally accept the deal, which appears likely, and the Serbs continue to reject a foreign peacekeeping force, then Belgrade may run the risk of NATO air strikes against Serb defensive installations as a means to force the issue.

Destexe said the threat of force could make the Serbs accept the deal. Destexe said, "Milosevic has never accepted anything without the threat of force. So, if there is a credible threat of force, Milosevic might accept the deal, but it is not the case now, and there is nothing in NATO's behavior which could lead him to believe that NATO is serious this time."

NATO has repeatedly threatened to bomb Serbia if it becomes the only obstacle to ending the violence in Kosovo. This threat has been prompted by concerns that if the Rambouillet peace plan failed, the war in Kosovo will escalate and could spread to other countries in the region.

But there are still serious divisions of view on what should be done among members of the Contact Group of mediating countries, comprising France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States.

Some members of the Contact Group seem to be reluctant to unleash strikes unless Serbian forces are responsible for massacring Kosovars. Russia has been opposed to strikes under any circumstances. In short, there is little consensus on when and even whether decisive military action should be undertaken.

But many observers note there is also a risk in doing nothing. Namely, it would run the risk of seriously undermining the credibility of the international mediators and of NATO, which could make future peacekeeping efforts more difficult.

In the meantime, there have been reports of escalating violence in Kosovo itself. Western reporters in the field say Serbian security forces today targeted two rebel-held villages in the Vucitrn area.

Separatist UCK soldiers were also accused today of violence, reportedly attacking an army post in the north and firing on two police stations late last night.

Both sides appear to be vying for position while their representatives and international mediators sit at the negotiating table in Paris.