A hard hit to Kosovo diplomacy

Weekend bombing of Chinese Embassy dims many Serbs' hope of end to

Like many Serbs, Jovica Misic thought peace was just around the corner.

The nightly bombings had slowed down. Electricity and water were returning to most neighborhoods. He had even heard the "good news" that Russia and America were working toward a peace plan.

This weekend, however, Mr. Misic stood with hundreds of others in front of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which on Friday night had been hit by several NATO bombs, killing at least three Chinese citizens.

Misic, a city bus driver, knew what it all meant. "I was optimistic yesterday," he says. "But after this there is no way peace can be achieved."

Reaction to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy - which NATO officials expressed deep regret for and insisted was unintended - is a reminder of just how tenuous are the diplomatic efforts to end the conflict among Serbs, ethnic Albanians, and the 19 nations of NATO.

Just last Thursday, the foreign ministers of Western industrial powers and Russia had issued a written proposal for resolving the crisis. But now, as war drags into the 48th day, a resolution is apparently no closer.

"I really can't understand this," says an independent Serbian journalist. "The only thing I can tell you is that this is a bad sign."

China is a veto-wielding, permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Its role may become essential as the UN becomes more involved in reaching a diplomatic settlement, which the foreign ministers' statement proposes. On Sunday China's vice president, Hu Jintao, called the airstrikes "barbaric attacks" and encouraged the Chinese to protest.

"I think that after [the bombing of the Chinese Embassy], there is no diplomacy," sums up Goran Matic, a Yugoslav minister without portfolio.

Claims of faulty intelligence

Mr. Matic and others in the Serbian capital found it hard to believe that the embassy was hit purely because of faulty intelligence, as US officials say. The embassy, they point out, was in a neighborhood where buildings are large and spread out - making them easy to distinguish in comparison with moving, hidden targets in Kosovo. Also, the United States is known to have an excellent military and intelligence component in Serbia, which surely had updated maps of the city and knew the difference between a federal supply and procurement office, which NATO says was the target, and the embassy.

Another target the same night was equally puzzling. NATO bombers hit the Hotel Yugoslavia, which British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called "the war room of Arkan's Tigers." Arkan, or Zeljko Raznatovic, is said to be a paramilitary commander whose troops, called the Tigers, are active in the "ethnic cleansing" operation in Kosovo.

But three nights before it was bombed, the Hotel Yugoslavia was virtually empty. At the front desk there were no more than 15 room keys missing from their hooks.

It is unclear where diplomacy will go in the wake of the embassy bombing. Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin is expected to continue shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade, Moscow, and Washington.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Russians can pull the Serbs into a peace deal. With China possibly emerging as a major Yugoslav ally, the Serbs will be less reliant on Russia, a Slavic cousin with similar Christian Orthodox beliefs.

Russia already agreed with the US and other industrial powers on a set of principles outlining how to stop the war.

The plan calls for the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo and "effective international civil and security presences" to enter the region. Ethnic Albanians, some 700,000 of whom have been driven out of the province, would be allowed to return, and Kosovo would be given "substantial self-government" within the Yugoslav federation. Major questions, such as the composition of troops and their level of armament, are left open.

KLA resistance

But the leading voice of the ethnic Albanians, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), has already rejected the plan because, they say, it calls for them to be disarmed and has Kosovo remaining in Yugoslavia. Furthermore, they are likely to object to Russian peacekeepers, whom they distrust almost as much as they distrust the Serbs.

President Clinton said this week that the conflict could be resolved with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic still in power. It follows that Milosevic could continue to play on tension between Serbs and ethnic Albanians for years.

The embassy bombing is likely to embolden the Serbs and raise their support throughout the world, thus making them less likely to compromise.

Many Serbs are puzzled why NATO attacked so ferociously after a week in which Mr. Milosevic released three captured US soldiers and allowed Ibrahim Rugova, an ethnic Albanian leader, to leave the country.

Bozana Zumbor went with her husband to the Hotel Yugoslavia to take a look at the destruction - and try to find out if her friend who worked at the front desk was OK. She still had cotton in her ears from the night before when there were air raids.

"The detonations threw me off my bed," she said. "This is a catastrophe. I was absolutely optimistic before this happened."

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