Getting to 'yes' in Kosovo talks

Plan tries to straddle divergent endgames of Serbs, Albanians. Talksmay go into next week.

For the United States and its partners, keeping the crisis in Serbia's Kosovo province from bursting into a full-blown war that could destabilize the region requires a deft balancing act that denies both sides their main aims.

As they see it, that means ending Serbia's rule of Kosovo but denying independence to its long-abused ethnic Albanian majority, while trying to ensure normal lives for people divided by different languages, cultures, religions, and a history of hate.

That intricate formula underpins a proposed three-year interim plan that Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders, sequestered in a 14th-century palace, are being pressed to accept in talks that entered a fifth day Wednesday.

"Citizens in Kosovo shall have the right to democratic self-government," says the draft peace accord, a copy of which was obtained by the Monitor. "The right of democratic self-government shall include the right to participate in free and fair elections."

In addition to the draft accord to end battles between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, the sides are reviewing a proposed constitution and annexes that set election rules and create a human rights ombudsman. The documents represent months of tough work by US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill and Wolfgang Petritsch, the Austrian envoy to Belgrade.

More than 2,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have been killed following a brutal police crackdown on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) last February by President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is a republic. The crackdown turned what was a decade-long peaceful movement by Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians against Serbian repression into an uprising for independence led by the KLA.

Under the proposed peace plan, the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), a US-led international operation deployed to monitor a failed October truce, would oversee its implementation; up to 35,000 NATO troops, including about 4,000 US soldiers, would secure a cease-fire between Serb forces and the rebel KLA. NATO is threatening action if either side rejects the accord.

But the success of the talks in the Chateau de Rambouillet, a turreted palace set amid snow-carpeted parklands 35 miles from Paris, remains highly uncertain. A decision will be taken this weekend on whether to continue the conference for a second week.

A major hurdle is that the draft accord makes no provision for the referendum on independence the 15 ethnic Albanian negotiators, including some KLA leaders, are demanding. Instead, it requires them to affirm the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, now made up of Serbia and Montenegro.

A source close to the talks said yesterday the Serbs have offered to meet face-to-face with ethnic Albanians to sign 10 principles that include that recognition of territorial integrity.

In Yugoslavia, Serb authorities agreed yesterday to release all 40 bodies of ethnic Albanians who were killed at Racak last month. The massacre had outraged the international community and paved the way for the peace talks.

The US, France, Russia, Britain, Germany, and Italy - the Contact Group - oppose independence for Kosovo, fearing it could reignite fighting in Bosnia and trigger instability elsewhere.

But the plan far exceeds the degree of self-rule Mr. Milosevic would allow. Milosevic exploited the mythological importance of the province to Serbs as he fanned the nationalism that brought him to power and led to four wars and more than 200,000 deaths since 1991.

Serbia could provide social services, advice on educational curricula, and court services to Kosovo citizens if they so choose, a concession to the province's 150,000 Serbs. But the plan would end the ruthless colonial-style rule Milosevic imposed when he revoked the province's autonomy in 1989.

Furthermore, the sides have yet to see annexes on a withdrawal of Serbian troops and police and the creation of a new provincial police force, the taking of a census, and the powers of the KVM chief.

The mediators say they want to nail down the political framework before moving to other issues. "This is the order in which they chose to do things," says a source close to the talks. "This is stuff both sides will be trying to alter."

Finally, sources say, the sides persist in pressing conditions for signing the plan: The ethnic Albanians are demanding an immediate cease-fire guaranteed by NATO; Belgrade rejects the deployment of NATO peacekeepers.

Some key provisions of the proposed peace plan:

* Mechanisms designed to safeguard the rights of Kosovo's ethnic groups, which would be guaranteed their own schools, religious and cultural institutions, and use of their languages and national symbols. In addition to the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians and Christian Orthodox Serbs, there are many smaller ethnic groups.

* Kosovo would have its own president, government, legislature, and courts, while considerable powers would be vested in local authorities. The assembly speaker and some other key public posts would be selected on an ethnic basis, as would 40 seats in the 100-member assembly. Internationally supervised polls would be held within 90 days of the signing of the accord.

* Belgrade would have to free ethnic Albanian political prisoners and rebels of the KLA, except those accused of war crimes. It would have to end its defiance of The Hague-based international war-crimes tribunal, which wants to investigate massacres of civilians; the KLA would have to disarm, and also release its Serbian prisoners.

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