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European Optimism on Kosovo Races Clock

February 18, 1999| From Times Wire Services

RAMBOUILLET, France — Despite Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's defiant "no" to the chief mediator at the Kosovo peace talks here, the British and French foreign ministers said Wednesday that they detected some progress.

With less than three days to go to the Saturday noon deadline for reaching a three-year interim agreement between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, Foreign Ministers Hubert Vedrine of France and Robin Cook of Britain said both sides showed signs of moving closer to a deal.

"It seems things are moving a bit," Vedrine said at a chateau outside Paris where talks have been taking place since Feb. 6. "But there is only a little time left."

Key to any Kosovo peace agreement is the deployment of a 30,000-strong NATO force in the Serbian province to ensure that the deal is implemented. Belgrade's refusal so far to consider allowing such a force on Yugoslav territory--Serbia is one of two republics in Yugoslavia--has been a major roadblock in the talks.

Christopher Hill, the American who heads the international mediating team at the talks, flew to Belgrade on Tuesday with a tough message for Milosevic: Sign a deal by Saturday or face North Atlantic Treaty Organization missiles. NATO has threatened to launch airstrikes on Yugoslavia if an agreement is not reached by then.

Milosevic, however, showed no sign of being intimidated. He reiterated Serbs' opposition to deployment of NATO troops in a statement carried by the official news agency Tanjug.

The Clinton administration warned again Wednesday that the Serbs face "swift and severe" consequences if they persist in rejecting a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Also Wednesday, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the deployment of additional U.S.-based Stealth fighters and other military aircraft to Europe to prepare for possible strikes.

The six-nation Contact Group on the Balkans, made up of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, brought Serbs and secessionist ethnic Albanians to the negotiating table to end a conflict that has cost an estimated 2,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless in Kosovo.

A senior official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that, if the Serbs agreed to the NATO force, an extension of the talks beyond the Saturday deadline might be considered to clear up unresolved issues.

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