LONDON — The United States and its major European allies Friday bluntly ordered the warring factions in Kosovo to accept a peace plan giving wide self-rule to the ethnic Albanian majority in the separatist province by Feb. 19 or face a likely NATO military campaign.
The ultimatum by the six-nation Contact Group coordinating peace efforts in the Balkans was extraordinarily specific, dictating the time and place for negotiations and the intended outcome of the talks.
The allies' action came on another bloody day in Kosovo. In the worst violence, Serbian police killed 24 ethnic Albanians in what they called a raid on a suspected rebel hide-out. An international monitor denounced the raid as a "mass killing," but the circumstances of the attack were unclear.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia issued their demand Friday after losing patience with the refusal of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to start serious talks about ending a conflict that has left hundreds dead.
"Without strenuous efforts on our part, the parties cannot or will not stop the spiral of violence that is building toward renewed humanitarian catastrophe and all-out war," Albright said.
The Contact Group said it will "hold both sides accountable" if they fail to make peace in three weeks. It did not specify the consequences, but Albright said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is ready to put its military muscle behind the ultimatum.
"We will maintain the credible threat of force, which has proven again and again to be the only language that President Milosevic understands," Albright said.
In Washington, President Clinton said the allies' "goal is not merely to respond to the recent atrocities in Kosovo but to help resolve the conflict so that the violence can end for good."
He made clear that could include the use of force against the Serbs.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said the alliance "stands ready to act and rules out no option" to coerce the warring factions to accept a political settlement. Now that the Contact Group has acted, NATO is expected to issue a more specific threat of airstrikes on Serbian targets if Milosevic drags his feet. Although the alliance does not plan to bomb the ethnic Albanians, U.S. officials said NATO will take action to force them to the table if they try to hold back.
The two-track strategy was necessary because Russia, a member of the Contact Group but not NATO, opposes the use of force in Kosovo. The plan allowed Moscow to vote for the Contact Group's political declaration without having to formally approve military action.
That's a transparent fig leaf--NATO's plans are well-known--but Russian officials made clear that it was enough to win their support at the London meeting.
At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council late Friday threw its support behind the Contact Group's plan.
Rival Factions Are Summoned to France
The Contact Group summoned the Yugoslav government and representatives of the ethnic Albanians who make up 90% of the province's population to meet no later than Feb. 6 at Rambouillet, a chateau about 30 miles southwest of Paris.
After seven days of talks, the Contact Group foreign ministers will assess the situation to determine whether enough progress has been made to continue. If so, the parties will be given another week, until Feb. 19, to wrap up the negotiations.
The major-power consortium also dictated the outcome of the talks. It said the two sides must agree on broad autonomy for the ethnic Albanians, in effect accepting a plan that U.S. mediator Christopher Hill has been trying--without success--to get the sides to accept for months. The self-rule would last for three years, with the parties negotiating on a permanent solution during that time. Kosovo is the southernmost province of Serbia, the dominant republic of what remains of Yugoslavia.
Up to now, both sides have rejected the plan--Milosevic because it goes too far in loosening the government's grip on the province, and the ethnic Albanians because it stops short of meeting their demand for total independence. U.S. officials say the parties may go along with the compromise now because they face the threat of military force if they do not.
NATO and the Contact Group also demanded that Milosevic honor an agreement he reached in October with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to withdraw much of his military and special police forces from the province and end a crackdown on ethnic Albanian guerrillas. NATO was ready to start bombing in October but suspended the planned attack when Milosevic and Holbrooke reached their agreement.