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Crisis in Yugoslavia

U.S. Rejects Yugoslavia Concession on Troops

Diplomacy: Belgrade says it will accept a Kosovo peacekeeping force with NATO soldiers at its core. Washington insists that all conditions must be met.

May 22, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The Yugoslav government indicated Friday that it no longer objects to a key NATO demand that alliance troops form the core of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

But a senior Yugoslav official said the makeup, size and mandate of such a force for maintaining peace in the war-torn province was an issue that should be worked out between the Balkan nation and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The latest retreat in Yugoslavia's negotiating position came Wednesday when Russian peace envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin met here with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but it was not fully articulated until Yugoslav Deputy Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic briefed reporters Friday.

The Clinton administration immediately dismissed the overture as too little to warrant a pause in the air war.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Washington will accept nothing less than an agreement to meet all of NATO's conditions for ending the bombing: withdrawal of all Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, an end to ethnic violence in the province, broad autonomy for Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, as well as a return of refugees to Kosovo under the protection of a peacekeeping force with North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops at its core.

"We're not interested in negotiations, and we're only interested in seeing whether, through this channel of Chernomyrdin . . . Milosevic can accept these points," Rubin said. "There's no middle ground here; either he accepts [all] the points or he doesn't."

Russia and the world's top seven industrial nations--the Group of 8--are working to bridge their own differences and develop a detailed Kosovo peace plan to be submitted to the U.N. Security Council.

In Wednesday's seven-hour meeting, Milosevic won Chernomyrdin's endorsement for a Yugoslav voice in this process. The two men also repeated their insistence on a bombing halt before talks proceed.

"Yugoslavia should be seated at the negotiating table, and it is not there," Chernomyrdin said after the meeting.

Chernomyrdin, who on Friday ended two days of talks in Moscow with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, is scheduled to return here Monday for further meetings with Milosevic before rejoining Talbott in Moscow.

Ahtisaari, the European Union's special envoy, said Friday that the negotiations "just keep getting better." But Rubin said the Moscow talks had made only limited progress toward the U.S. goal of getting Russia to accept the U.S.-NATO approach for ending the Kosovo crisis.

"We have not achieved major movement forward," Rubin said. "I think this is a very slow process."

Having survived more than eight weeks of NATO bombing with his political power intact, Milosevic now believes that the alliance is losing public support for the air assaults and a possible land invasion, Vujovic and others close to the Yugoslav president say. Milosevic has hinted his willingness to make a deal by announcing a partial withdrawal of troops from Kosovo that NATO has dismissed as insufficient.

Politicians and analysts here in the Yugoslav capital say Milosevic is trying to show that he would accept almost any peace that keeps Kosovo within the Yugoslav federation and him in power.

With a place at the negotiating table, they said, Milosevic would be able to avoid the humiliation of an imposed settlement and portray any peace deal to his people and his army as the outcome of bargaining in which he fought to preserve national interests.

The United States and other Western nations insist that only a heavily armed peacekeeping force with NATO troops at its core can guarantee a safe return for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees expelled from Kosovo by Serbian forces.

Yugoslavia has retreated on negotiating positions before. After the alliance air campaign began, Milosevic insisted that peacekeepers could not come from NATO countries and could not be armed. But he has since backtracked. Late last month, he said peacekeepers could carry light weapons for self-defense.

After the Group of 8 agreed two weeks ago that any peacekeeping force should first seek a U.N. mandate, Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio in Milosevic's government, said Yugoslavia might accept soldiers from some of the nine NATO countries that are not taking part in the bombing campaign in such a force.

On Friday, Vujovic said Yugoslavia's place at the bargaining table is more important than the makeup of whatever peacekeeping force emerges.

Asked twice at the briefing whether Milosevic would still reject a peacekeeping role by the countries he calls "aggressors"--those involved in the bombing campaign--Vujovic avoided giving a direct answer.

"Who would participate in a [peacekeeping] mission would depend on a direct dialogue between the U.N. secretary-general and Yugoslavia," he said. "This dialogue would take Yugoslavia's views into account. Our role would be reaffirmed, the role of the U.N. would be affirmed.

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