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Washington Journal: West Rejects Belgrade's Peace Offer

Washington, 7 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and its allies have rejected a unilateral ceasefire offered by Belgrade that calls for ending the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.

U.S. officials said the proposal failed to address the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and acceptance of an international peacekeeping force -- two key issues that led to the air war now in its third week.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Tuesday a mere ceasefire is not sufficient to meet NATO demands on Kosovo. He said the air campaign will continue until either Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accepts the demands or his capacity to maintain a grip on Kosovo is diminished.

In a speech earlier Tuesday, U.S. President Bill Clinton restated NATO's objectives on Kosovo.

Clinton said: "The United States would never choose force as anything other than a last option. Mr. Milosevic could end it (bombing) now by withdrawing his military police and paramilitary forces; by accepting the deployment of an international security force to protect not only the Kosovar Albanians, most but not all of whom are Muslims, but also the Serbian minority in Kosovo ... and by making it possible for all the refugees to return and to move toward a political framework based on the accords reached in France."

The accords called for autonomy - though not independence - for Kosovo within Serbia.

At the Defense Department, spokesman Ken Bacon suggested Milosevic's peace offer may be a sign "that he's rattled but we are going to continue to rattle him until he makes an offer that meets our conditions and he's far away from that right now."

Russian officials said Belgrade's peace offer should be accepted as a basis for a political settlement. They called for an immediate end of the bombing.

The United States has been concerned that the Kosovo crisis is having an adverse impact on relations with Moscow. Shortly before Belgrade made its peace proposal, U.S. Vice President Al Gore telephoned Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to urge him not to let differences over Kosovo disrupt relations.

White House officials told RFE/RL the 40-minute conversation was businesslike. They said it was the first conversation between the two men since Primakov turned his plane around over the Atlantic two weeks ago when told by Gore that NATO air strikes were inevitable against Yugoslav military targets.

Primakov went to Belgrade in the opening days of the war to meet Milosevic. He tried but failed to broker an end to hostilities.

Russia has ruled out a military involvement in the war but it is vehemently against the bombing campaign.

Also on the diplomatic front, U.S. officials told RFE/RL there is a good possibility that NATO foreign ministers will meet early next week to discuss the situation in Kosovo. Another meeting, the officials said, involving Russia and other Contact Group countries, is also anticipated.

Clinton and other top U.S. officials say there are no plans to send U.S. troops into combat in Kosovo. However, the constant pictures of refugees being shown on television and in newspapers may be influencing U.S. public opinion.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Tuesday found that 55 percent of Americans say they would support Clinton if he dispatched ground troops. Earlier polls suggested that a majority of the Americans would not support such an action.

At the White House, spokesman Lockhart also announced that 20,000 Kosovar refugees will be temporarily housed at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Lockhart said the facility will be temporary as NATO intends the Kosovars will ultimately return to their homes.

NATO officials say that more than 830,000 refugees have been driven from their homes in Kosovo in the past year, most of them in the past 10 days.