After only a day of concerted work, international talks to end nearly a year of fighting in Serbia's Kosovo province appear to have hit problems, with ethnic Albanian rebels saying the negotiations were "blocked."
Coming so quickly, the tough going holds serious implications for rapid progress in what may be a last chance for the United States, its European allies, and Russia to avert an all-out war that could spill into other parts of the volatile Balkans.
The United States and its partners are proposing a three-year interim accord that would confer substantial self-rule on Kosovo and would be enforced by up to 35,000 NATO troops, including as many as 4,000 American soldiers.
NATO is threatening airstrikes against the Serbs if they reject the plan; it says it will take steps to cut off arms supplies to the ethnic Albanian rebels if they obstruct an agreement.
The peace conference, taking place inside a 14th-century palace, confronted an ethnic Albanian demand Monday that Serbian police and Yugoslav Army forces in Kosovo observe an immediate cease-fire. The demand was apparently rejected by negotiators for President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, which now comprises only Serbia and Montenegro.
"The talks in Rambouillet have been blocked," said a statement by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is fighting for independence for the province, whose 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority have endured a decade of repressive Serbian rule. "While the Albanian side has requested an immediate cease-fire, the Serbian representation insists that the talks go on."
There was no official reaction from the chief mediators - US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill; Wolfgang Petritsch, Austria's envoy to Belgrade; and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Mayorsky - who were trying to maintain a news blackout.
But a Western diplomat close to the talks denied they were blocked. He said the sides, working in separate rooms of the Chateau de Rambouillet, the French presidential retreat, reviewed the draft accord with the mediators.
"The negotiators anticipated the difficulty of these talks and they expected, as Hill once put it, a roller-coaster ride at Rambouillet," says the Western diplomat. But he adds: "The pace and level of activities is extremely active."
Negotiators have set a two-week timetable for an agreement to be reached and are trying to leave little room for the two sides to maneuver.
In its statement, the KLA also said the ethnic Albanian delegation wanted Belgrade to unconditionally release all ethnic Albanian political prisoners "as a gesture of goodwill" and allow political migrs and those convicted of political offenses in absentia to be allowed to return to Kosovo.
A source inside the talks confirmed the demands, saying that they were being made by all 15 ethnic Albanian negotiators, only five of whom are KLA leaders. "The delegation appears to be unified," he said.
The source said the Albanian delegates also remained united on a demand that the interim accord provide for a referendum on independence for Kosovo at the end of the three-year interim period.
The demand has been rejected by Serbia as well as the US and its partners, who say granting independence to Kosovo could destabilize the region.