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NATO Lines Up Bombers as Envoy Shoots for Peaceful Solution in Kosovo

Balkans: Holbrooke continues talks with Yugoslav president. U.S. B-52s arrive in Britain.

October 12, 1998|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — As NATO geared up Sunday for threatened airstrikes on Yugoslavia, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke sought to use the military preparations as leverage to reach a deal on the Kosovo crisis.

"We spent about 11 hours with [Yugoslav] President [Slobodan] Milosevic today, and the rest of the time in conversations with our colleagues in Washington," a clearly exhausted Holbrooke told reporters shortly before dawn today after a marathon overnight work session.

"Today's talks with President Milosevic and his colleagues were intense, indeed at times very heated," he said.

"We remain committed to, we remain determined to find a--let me rephrase that, because it didn't come out quite right--I can only say that we remain on an intense effort to find a peaceful and satisfactory outcome to what can only be called an emergency," Holbrooke added, "while in another part of Europe, Brussels, NATO continues to move toward a very different form of outcome.

"We will see how things come out in the not-too-distant future."

If NATO gives an "activation order"--equivalent to cocking the trigger of a gun--at a scheduled meeting in Brussels today, control of the alliance's military power will go to U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe. One more set of political approvals would be needed for the alliance to, in effect, pull the trigger.

Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor, said Sunday that NATO attacks could be launched as early as today.

According to U.S. officials, Milosevic still has not removed all the troops and paramilitary police sent to Kosovo to crush a separatist guerrilla movement in the southern Serbian province. That failure could be the key justification for airstrikes, if they come.

But talks Sunday appeared to be dealing not just with that question but also with longer-term issues seen as vital to any genuine solution.

These issues are the shape that an interim political settlement between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Milosevic would take, and the question of allowing an international military force to police any such agreement.

Holbrooke said his telephone conversations with officials in Washington early today included a nearly three-hour conference call chaired by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and joined by Berger. Their talks covered "the enormous range of issues and questions that lie before us in the next few hours and days."

Talks with Milosevic would resume at 10 a.m. today, he added.

Early Sunday, after the conclusion of the previous day's talks with Milosevic, Holbrooke stressed that compliance with U.N. demands must be "fully verifiable" and that there must be "a verifiable compliance regime." While not publicly defined, these terms are generally seen as references to setting up an international military force in Kosovo.

Holbrooke appeared to be using the threat of action by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to obtain maximum progress on these two issues, whose settlement the United States considers vital to the effort to bring peace to Kosovo.

Holbrooke came here with a six-point ultimatum issued Thursday by the United States and its key allies.

Milosevic has claimed for several days that he already is in compliance with those demands, but that is an interpretation the United States rejects.

The ultimatum demands that Milosevic end offensive military operations in Kosovo; withdraw forces that were sent into the province in March to put down ethnic Albanian separatists; allow international humanitarian organizations to operate freely; cooperate with the international war crimes tribunal; facilitate the return of people displaced from their homes; and start negotiations with the ethnic Albanian community on autonomy for the province.

While face-to-face talks on autonomy have not yet begun, indirect negotiations are quite advanced.

U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, who has headed shuttle diplomacy for the negotiations on self-rule in Kosovo, presented a revised U.S. proposal this weekend to both Serbian President Milan Milutinovic and ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj said Sunday that the key points of difficulty in the Holbrooke-Milosevic talks were questions of the deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo and demands that an interim political agreement exclude Kosovo from "the legal-political system of Serbia."

But newspapers in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, carried upbeat articles Sunday indicating that an agreement might be in sight. "Sobering Up" was a headline in Politika Ekspres, while Dnevni Telegraf ran an article headlined "NATO Threat Removed?"

Despite such rays of optimism in some Serbian quarters, NATO officials are scheduled to meet today to further ratchet up the pressure by considering approval of an activation order.

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