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Key Allies Hesitant to Back U.S. on Yugoslav Sanctions

Kosovo: Russian and Italian reluctance raises doubts that stronger action will be taken today to force out Serbian police units.

March 25, 1998|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BONN — A new U.S. effort to further punish Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for his brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Serbia's Kosovo province hit a potentially serious snag Tuesday as key American allies expressed a deep reluctance to tighten the Balkan sanctions any further.

In preliminary meetings with her counterparts from Russia and Italy, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ran into increased doubts from both foreign ministers about imposing new sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia--made up of the republics of Serbia and tiny Montenegro--despite the Balkan nation's failure to meet a Western deadline for withdrawing its security forces from Kosovo.

Other allied foreign ministers already have expressed similar views. Germany's Klaus Kinkel said last week that the demands the group made of Milosevic "have, generally speaking, been met," and France's Hubert Vedrine told reporters that "significant progress has been achieved."

As a result, U.S. and allied officials were pessimistic about prospects that the Contact Group, the six-nation panel charged with monitoring the situation in the Balkans, will take strong action at a meeting today, though Milosevic effectively has flouted the group's demands.

One senior U.S. official traveling with Albright told reporters before landing here that Washington may change its tactics for the session and could take action on its own--possibly including a freeze on Yugoslav assets--if the allies do not go along.

The main U.S. objective for the meeting here "is to prevent backsliding" by the allies on previous sanctions, the official said. These include support of a U.N. arms embargo, along with bans on Western financing of privatization efforts and on sales of heavy anti-riot equipment.

Albright made a special stop in Rome on Tuesday morning to confer with Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini and later flew to Bonn to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, in a final effort to muster support.

Today's meeting in Bonn is considered crucial. At a March 9 session, the group shied away from all but a few modest sanctions but warned it would consider tougher steps--such as freezing Yugoslav financial assets overseas--if Milosevic did not withdraw his security forces from Kosovo within 10 days. The ministers also demanded that Milosevic commit himself publicly "to begin a process of dialogue" with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, a move aimed at enhancing its political status, and that he allow access to the province by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups.

But as of late Tuesday, Milosevic had not complied with any of those demands. Serbian special police units and security troops--whose crackdown this month has led to the deaths of at least 80 ethnic Albanians, including women and children--were still in Kosovo.

Ironically, the U.S. effort may have been set back by two small but politically symbolic developments in Kosovo on Sunday and Monday that appeared to have given Italy, Germany, France and Russia the political excuse they have been seeking to oppose tougher sanctions and let Milosevic off the hook.

In one symbolically important move, Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo agreed on a schedule for returning Albanian students to schools from which they have been barred for years. In another, ethnic Albanians conducted balloting a day earlier for a new shadow government without significant Serbian interference.

At the same time, Monday's surprise Cabinet shake-up in Russia, which created new uncertainty about Moscow's position on key foreign policy issues, left Albright scrambling to persuade Primakov to drop Russian opposition to a U.N. resolution that would impose an arms embargo against Yugoslavia.

Russia had agreed to support the resolution after it was endorsed at the March 9 Contact Group meeting. But it since has been holding up Security Council action on the proposal, contending that Milosevic has taken enough steps to ease the crisis in Kosovo.

And in a development that may make the Milosevic regime even more difficult to negotiate with, Serbia's ruling party formed a new government for Yugoslavia's larger republic that for the first time includes the nation's most hard-line nationalists.

Milosevic's Socialist Party agreed to give 15 of 36 government posts to members of the Serbian Radical Party and made its president, Vojislav Seselj, deputy prime minister of Serbia.

Seselj was a paramilitary commander whose forces terrorized Muslim and Croatian villages in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. He steadfastly opposes any concessions to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo.

The government should have been formed after elections six months ago, but Milosevic's Socialists, no longer holding a majority, were forced to reach a compromise with other parties.

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