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Inside the Kosovo peace talks

A bleaker picture emerges than official assessments of how the talksnear Paris are proceeding.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1999



RAMBOUILLET, FRANCE

It was like classic good cop, bad cop.

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As he and his fellow mediators faced their ethnic Albanian interlocutors, Russian diplomat Boris Mayorsky put his foot down. They would not convey a demand to the Serbian delegation for an immediate cease-fire, he said, according to sources close to the Kosovo peace talks here.

Intervening before tempers flared, Christopher Hill, the American ambassador to Macedonia, and Austrian envoy Wolfgang Petritsch, representing the European Union (EU), agreed to relay the demand, the sources say.

The exchange, which reportedly occurred Feb. 8 on the second day of the negotiations, offers a glimpse into the complex and tension-fraught effort by the United States, the EU, and Russia to prevent almost a year of fighting in Kosovo from bursting into all-out war that could destabilize the region.

In their first briefing for journalists, the negotiators said Feb. 9 the talks were difficult, but "moving ahead." The sides, they said, have begun picking through, line by line, word by word, a draft three-year interim plan to replace Serbia's decade-long iron-fisted rule of Kosovo with autonomy for its ethnic Albanian majority of 2 million.

"By the end, we will have a settlement that works," Mr. Hill said with optimism. "People will understand what their lives will be like in Kosovo, and everyone will feel comfortable in Kosovo." He said both sides "really are serious."

The mediators refused to discuss specifics of the talks at the Chateau de Rambouillet in line with a news blackout imposed to prevent disclosures that might derail the intricate negotiations.

The only way to obtain information is in circumspect cellular telephone calls - undoubtedly monitored by French intelligence - into the palace, or to people on the outside who are in contact with those locked up in the snow-dusted French presidential retreat. Hill said such leaks were not "a big problem"; Mr. Mayorsky called them "very unhelpful" but "facts of life."

Enough information is emerging to paint a somewhat bleaker picture of the talks than the official assessments. "We are a long way from the beginning yet. I still can't be terribly optimistic," says a Western diplomatic source. One hurdle, he says, is that it is unlikely the Serbian delegates have the authority to make major concessions. Ultimately, he says, it will likely require talks between Yugoslavia's autocratic president, Slobodan Milosevic, the paramount Serbian power broker, and Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accords on Bosnia.

"There is nobody there [in the Serbian delegation] who at the end of the day is going to sign up to anything," says the Western diplomatic source.

Reportedly the Serbs are demanding that the Albanians sign a set of principles, drafted by the international community, that include preserving the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

A source in the general command of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for independence, is even more pessimistic. "The way Hill's plan was drafted," he says, "the negotiations will fail."

He complains that enormous pressure is being exerted on the 15 ethnic Albanian delegates to drop their main demand for a referendum on Kosovo's independence at the end of the three-year interim accord.