WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a senior Russian diplomat will face off in London on Monday in a tense post-Cold War confrontation over escalating violence in Kosovo, a restive province of Serbia where ethnic Albanian rebels are battling Serbian police.
On the ground in Kosovo on Friday, Serbian police claimed to have "destroyed the core" of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, killing guerrilla leader Adem Jasari and capturing 30 of his fighters during a two-day assault on rebel positions in the mountains west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
Since last week, the crackdown has claimed at least 51 lives by Serbian count--45 Albanians and six Serbian police.
The United States, which blames Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic for touching off the latest Balkan conflict, has said it will confer with its allies over the next several days on how to force Serbia to end its repression in Kosovo.
Russia, in a statement issued Friday in Moscow, condemned "Western" interference in Serbia's internal affairs.
Albright, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Afanasyenko and senior diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and Italy will meet Monday to consider Kosovo's fighting, which began a week ago.
This so-called Contact Group on the former Yugoslav federation was established to focus attention on Balkan conflicts.
Although it failed for years to come to grips with the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it has been more effective recently in supporting implementation of the peace agreement negotiated in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio.
Kosovo is potentially the most dangerous tinderbox in the former Yugoslav federation.
Although Kosovo's population is 90% ethnic Albanian, it is geographically a province of Serbia. Decade-long, peaceful efforts by its political leadership to gain autonomy or independence have not succeeded, and now the recently formed guerrilla group has vowed to win independence by force.
Although Robert Gelbard, Washington's top Balkan strategist, recently branded some Kosovo Albanians terrorists, the U.S. considers Milosevic's government to be the aggressor in the latest conflict.
Milosevic, the former Serbian president, still wields power in the republic, although he is now president of Yugoslavia, which comprises Serbia and Montenegro.
U.S. officials say Serbian police have taken a heavy toll on civilians, along with the casualties inflicted on the armed rebels.
U.S. and other Western officials are concerned that fighting in Kosovo could easily spill over into neighboring Albania or Macedonia, another former Yugoslav republic with a volatile political mix that could draw Greece into the conflict.
Greece, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has already signaled its support for the Milosevic regime.
"It's no secret that we've always believed that Kosovo has implications beyond Kosovo and beyond" Yugoslavia, State Department spokesman James Foley said.
"That's why the situation there is so critical, and that's why we are going to be meeting in the Contact Group on this basis to deal with this issue," he said. "It is critical that the international community come together and make it crystal clear to Mr. Milosevic that he's got to call the dogs of repression back and must sit down and negotiate with the Kosovar Albanians--the moderate leadership there--on the kinds of reforms that will be necessary to defuse the situation."
But in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "We view as unacceptable statements by representatives of several Western countries about possible direct interference from outside and a shift in accent to various sanctions to influence Yugoslavia."
In keeping with a policy that began in the closing days of the Bush administration, the U.S. government has warned Milosevic to avoid conflict in Kosovo.
Although officials this week carefully avoided saying the words "U.S. military force" in the Kosovo context, one senior official said: "We've made it clear that there are a range of options available to us."
A small contingent of U.S. troops is included in a U.N. peacekeeping operation in neighboring Macedonia.
Albanian politicians in Pristina said a large number of women and children had remained in the onetime rebel stronghold of Prekaz while men moved out of the village under cover of darkness after Serbian police withdrew for the night, Reuters news service reported.
Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the biggest Kosovo Albanian political party, accused Serbia of unleashing police attacks to "ethnically cleanse" central Kosovo of its Albanian population, which numbers about 2 million.
Milosevic brushed aside U.S. concerns and vowed to wipe out the anti-Serb "terrorists" in Kosovo.
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Southwestern province of Serbia, borders Albania and Macedonia.
Kosovo was part of Serbia in the former Communist-run Yugoslav federation. Then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic abolished the region's autonomy in 1989, introducing martial law. Ethnic Albanians established a parallel, shadow state.
2 million people; 90% ethnic Albanians.
Kosovo was the seat of the medieval Serbian kingdom, and Serbs consider the region as the cradle of their history and culture. However, from 1389 until 1913 it was under Turkish rule. It became part of Yugoslavia after World War I.
More than 200 people have been killed in clashes since 1989. Violence has increased in the past year with the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army.