Talks pause to gather support

Ethnic Albanians may sign deal within two weeks. Next meeting in Franceis set for March 15.

The agreement of ethnic Albanian leaders to sign an internationally sponsored peace accord for Kosovo in two weeks appears aimed at building enough popular support for the plan that rebel hard-liners would be forced to accept it.

The decision on Feb. 23 was also apparently designed to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as the main blockage to a final settlement. He has remained opposed to the deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

But a threat of NATO airstrikes against Mr. Milosevic was suspended for a second time in less than a week as the Contact Group - the United States, France, Russia, Italy, and Germany - agreed to give him three more weeks in which to drop his objection to the NATO deployment.

The peace talks are to reconvene in France on March 15.

The delay in a final outcome of the peace talks, however, carries serious risks. As fighting raged in Kosovo between Serbian forces and independence-seeking ethnic Albanian rebels for a second straight day, some Western diplomats worried that an explosion in bloodshed could kill any chance for concluding a final agreement.

The decision by the 15-member ethnic Albanian delegation to accept the peace plan seemed designed to achieve another objective: ensuring the continued sympathy for their cause of the US. The US is the prime architect of the plan, with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spending days negotiating with the two sides.

The US had threatened to end all support for the ethnic Albanians had they rejected the deal. The Clinton administration, relieved of a potential diplomatic disaster, can now claim at least a partial success after 17 days of marathon talks.

The three-year interim plan is aimed at preventing fighting between Serbian forces and rebels of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority from exploding into an all-out war that could drag in surrounding states, igniting a regional conflagration. If both sides agreed to the plan, it would be enforced by a 28,000-strong NATO peacekeeping contingent, including some 4,000 American troops.

The plan would all but end a decade of iron-fisted Serbian rule of Kosovo by giving it substantial autonomy through its own government, parliament, and judiciary, but deny the rebels' demand for independence. At the end of the three-year period, a referendum on Kosovo's status could be held and the results taken into account at an international conference on the province's future.

The ethnic Albanian delegation reached its decision almost two hours after the expiration a 3 p.m. deadline at the talks outside Paris.

"The delegation of [Kosovo] with consensus understands that it can sign the agreement in two weeks after consultations with the people of [Kosovo and] political and military institutions," said a delegation statement

SOME experts and a source close to the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) saw the move aimed at building a groundswell of popular support for the plan that hard-line rebel commanders would be unable to resist. "This is good," says the source close to the KLA. "They want to discuss this more with other people."

A number of rebel commanders and the guerrillas' chief spokesman, Adem Demaci, oppose the accord because it does not include specific terms for a referendum on independence. Furthermore, it calls for the disarming and dissolution of the KLA, while permitting Yugoslavia to maintain troops in the province and gradually withdraw its police.

KLA sources say while some commanders favor the accord, others are unwilling to disband what has become the main political force among the ethnic Albanians. Still others, they say, want to continue fighting the Serbs, believing they can eventually win independence.

"The problem is that there are a few commanders who will not give in," says one influential KLA member.

It was these commanders and Mr. Demaci, he says, who prevailed in telephone calls to KLA representatives at the talks over the weekend to spurn the peace plan. Their rejection came as a shocking setback to the US-led mediation efforts as Western diplomats had gone into the talks confident they would win the agreement of the ethnic Albanians.

KLA political chief Hashim Thaci and his colleagues maintained their stance through Monday, refusing to bend despite extensive one-on-one talks with Ms. Albright, according to sources close to the negotiations.

But with KLA moderates and other ethnic Albanian leaders urging acceptance of the plan, Mr. Thaci appeared to have relented in favor of the decision to put off the signing for two weeks. That would give him and other delegation members time to build public support that hard-line commanders would be unable to resist.

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