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  •   Peace Talks Adjourn in Disarray

    U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright listens to French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine during the final press conference of the Kosovo talks in Rambouillet, France, on Tuesday. (Reuters)
    By Charles Trueheart and Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, February 24, 1999; Page A01

    The United States and its European allies failed yesterday to secure an agreement to end the war in Kosovo but sought to salvage their intensive peace effort by asking Yugoslav-Serb and ethnic Albanian negotiators to return to France in three weeks for a new round of talks.

    An hour after the second Western-imposed deadline for agreement had passed, a divided ethnic Albanian delegation announced that it "understood and accepted" the Western peace plan and promised to sign it after consulting with advisers in Kosovo.

    But prospects for a formal acceptance by the ethnic Albanians remained uncertain. "I don't believe this is a full agreement," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said after yesterday's session concluded at Rambouillet Chateau outside Paris.

    Albright argued that the day's events had "decisively broken a stalemate that hung over Kosovo." Still, the continued impasse was a major setback for U.S. and European leaders who had staked their credibility on forcing the warring parties to sign a peace agreement and allow deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

    The tenuousness of the situation was underscored by the threat of new full-scale combat in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanian guerrillas have waged a year-long fight for independence against thousands of Yugoslav army troops and Serbian paramilitary policemen.

    U.S. intelligence sources reported that 6,500 more Yugoslav troops, along with 250 tanks and 90 artillery pieces, were massing just outside the province in apparent preparation for a large-scale offensive. Some new fighting was reported yesterday between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian paramilitary forces northwest of Pristina, the provincial capital.

    At a news conference in Pristina, a spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, said the rebels would press ahead with their "liberation war." The spokesman -- an aide to Adem Demaci, the rebel army's political representative -- said the Western peace plan "would not bring peace in the Balkans" and would not "provide the Albanians with freedom and the rights they deserve." Demaci boycotted the talks but was in close contact with other rebel representatives during the negotiations.

    The inconclusive result at Rambouillet followed 18 days of arduous talks and came despite the personal intervention of Albright, who arrived in France Saturday and assumed the role of lead mediator over the past three days. It also left in limbo hundreds of NATO warplanes that had been poised to launch airstrikes against Yugoslav military targets if the Belgrade government caused a breakdown in the talks, and it cast doubt on the future of a plan that calls for deployment in Kosovo of 28,000 NATO troops, including 4,000 Americans, to enforce a peace agreement.

    Speaking about NATO's next possible move, one senior U.S. military official said: "This whole thing is as clear as mud." At the same time, U.S. and European officials tried to put the best face on the disappointing and uncertain conclusion of the talks. A mandated two-week negotiating period -- extended three days on Saturday when the ethnic Albanians demanded a referendum on sovereignty and ending in qualified agreement by only one side -- was being hailed as a sizable accomplishment.

    "In diplomatic parlance, [the ethnic Albanians have] agreed to this in principle," a hoarse Albright said at a news conference before heading home to Washington. "It's equivalent to initializing a text."

    French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine characterized the two sides' positions this way: "The Albanians said yes, in principle. . . . The Serbs said yes, but."

    In Washington, President Clinton, who last week declared his opposition to extension of the initial negotiating deadline, said in a statement that NATO still has authority to initiate airstrikes. "That depends upon the actions of the Serbs," he said. "What we need is continued restraint."

    "I believe that the [Kosovo Albanians] will strongly support what their negotiators have done," the president added, "because the agreement represents the opportunity for a better life after years of repression and fear."

    Serbian negotiators officially have not agreed to any aspect of the plan, which would restore autonomy to Kosovo but stop short of meeting the demands of its ethnic Albanian majority for independence. During the negotiations, the Serbs refused to accept deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force in the province, which the Western allies consider a central element of any lasting settlement.

    The force would supervise the withdrawal of most Serbian special police units and Yugoslav army forces from the province and oversee demilitarization of the ethnic Albanian rebels. The Serbian delegation issued a document yesterday in which they agreed to return to the negotiating table on March 15 to discuss, among other issues, "the character and scope of an international presence in Kosovo." Albright reiterated that "it must be a NATO-led force, but it can cooperate with other kinds of forces."

    Albright telephoned Demaci in the final hours of the negotiations at the request of Hashim Thaqi, leader of the rebel group's faction in the 16-member Rambouillet delegation and a key holdout against the Western plan. A U.S. official said former senator Bob Dole, a well-known figure in Kosovo because of a visit he made there eight years ago, also had telephoned Demaci at Albright's request.

    Paul Williams, an American University professor who has been serving as an adviser to the ethnic Albanian delegation, said the agreement in principle was not reached "until the last seven minutes of the conference," when chief U.S. Kosovo mediator Christopher Hill "did some real diplomacy, working the delegation from 'We're still not sure' to 'Yes.' "

    In addition to the Belgrade government's massing of troops and heavy equipment near Kosovo, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that army units and other security forces throughout Serbia were being mobilized for a possible attack and that others were being dispersed to make it harder for NATO warplanes to strike at troops stationed in permanent military installations. U.S. military officials estimate that there are about 12,000 tank-backed troops already in Kosovo, along with about 13,000 paramilitary policemen deployed by the Serbian Interior Ministry.

    Yesterday, a convoy of perhaps 50 large vehicles packed with combat troops was sighted moving south of the city of Nis, in southeastern Serbia, while a second column of at least 15 armored vehicles and a dozen T-84 tanks from the Yugoslav army's 252nd Armored Brigade was being removed from storage and assembling near Kraljevo in central Serbia, intelligence sources said in Washington.

    In northern Kosovo, 600 Serbian policemen arrived at the town of Kosovska Mitrovica, the sources said, while Yugoslav forces set up medical facilities that would be needed to care for any wounded.

    With NATO's credibility on the line, U.S. officials were scrambling to figure out what response the Western alliance should make if the Belgrade government orders a new offensive in Kosovo. Sources said NATO planners were refining previous airstrike blueprints in the light of the new Yugoslav and Serbian military concentrations but had reached no consensus on whether to react with force or on what level of violence would be sufficient to trigger NATO military action.

    "There is no clear-cut agreement" about what to do if new government forces move into Kosovo in violation of commitments made by Belgrade last Ocotber, said one European official close to the peace talks. "I expect we will be spending some time agonizing over what to do."

    NATO's top commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, is reportedly advocating a swift use of force if Belgrade moves more troops into Kosovo than the limit set by the October agreement. But some Clinton administration officials said it is unlikely the United States would act against such a movement unless, as one senior official said yesterday, "he begins to use large, heavy troops."

    "Making a big fuss about their presence isn't the high priority right now," said the official. "The general feeling is, you're not going to get people to bomb over the specific number of troops." If negotiations fail after the March deadline, however, NATO would probably demand their removal, he added. "They can be got out very quickly."

    The lack of consensus was conspicuous in NATO's general warning to Belgrade yesterday that "those who prevent the achievement of an interim agreement, provoke violent incidents or threaten the security of [international observers in Kosovo] will be held fully responsible for their actions."

    At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon used a similar tone. In contrast to Washington's declared determination to use force to impose peace on the Belgrade government, Bacon said that "should there be vicious or aggressive actions by the Serbs, then it's up to the secretary general of NATO to make a decision about calling on the use of airpower."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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