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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Russian Envoy, Milosevic Hold More Talks

Balkans: Indictment fails to halt shuttle diplomacy. Chernomyrdin 'very satisfied' with discussions.

May 29, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Pointedly ignoring Slobodan Milosevic's new stigma as a war crimes suspect, Russia's envoy for Kosovo engaged the Yugoslav president in nine hours of peace talks Friday here in a city blacked out by the busiest day of bombing in NATO's 9-week-old air assault.

In terse statements afterward, both parties made it clear that former Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's effort to mediate between Milosevic and the Western alliance was still on track.

Yugoslavia reaffirmed its acceptance of principles outlined by Russia and the seven leading Western economic powers--the Group of 8--as the framework for a settlement in Kosovo.

Chernomyrdin said he was "very satisfied" with the talks and expected to return here next week after meeting with U.S. and European envoys.

No narrowing of differences between NATO and Milosevic over details of the Group of 8 proposal was reported. But Chernomyrdin was clearly relieved that the indictment of Milosevic this week by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had not brought an abrupt halt to his shuttle diplomacy.

The U.N. tribunal in The Hague announced the indictment Thursday, accusing Milosevic and four top aides of responsibility for murders, mass deportations and other crimes against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign is aimed at halting a crackdown by Yugoslav troops and police on the province, where the military is fighting separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

Before leaving Moscow for Belgrade on Friday, Chernomyrdin said he was worried about the indictment. Critics have said the court's action might make it awkward or politically indefensible for Milosevic or his Western adversaries to continue even their indirect peace talks.

"We knew, we warned, we asked, 'Don't do this, because it will simply complicate the process,' " Chernomyrdin told reporters. "But . . . we deal with the lawfully elected president of Yugoslavia and will go on dealing with him."

Later, he emphasized his growing rapport with the Yugoslav leader, saying they "came to understand each other better" during their fourth meeting since the bombing began March 24.

Milosevic's office said the president was joined at the meeting by two men indicted with him--Serbian President Milan Milutinovic and the Yugoslav military chief of staff, Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic--as well as several senior army generals.

Chernomyrdin arrived after the heaviest 24 hours of NATO airstrikes yet. Alliance warplanes flew 792 missions, including 310 strike sorties, and NATO officials said forecasts of gorgeous weather over the next five days should enable them to strike even more intensely.

The alliance said its jets struck at military hardware, airfields, petroleum depots and radio communications stations across Serbia, and hit four electrical transmission towers and two transformer yards near Belgrade, plunging the city of 2 million people into darkness Thursday evening.

Much of Belgrade and Serbia's northern Vojvodina region remained without power Friday. Yugoslav officials said damage to power facilities would take longer to repair than after previous attacks, including two in the past week.

NATO continued its aerial campaign today, targeting Yugoslavia's power supply system in raids. Local media reported a power plant 40 miles east of Belgrade and another to the west were hit.

About half of NATO's 19 member countries are taking part in the bombing. NATO jets began operating over Yugoslavia from Hungary for the first time Friday, when two dozen U.S. Marine F/A-18 aircraft flew out of Taszar air base.

NATO has approved plans to build up allied forces in Macedonia and Albania to about 50,000 soldiers to prepare for peacekeeping duties--and in hope of raising the threat to Milosevic of a ground invasion.

Macedonia indicated it will approve the proposed deployment of 14,000 additional NATO troops if the Western alliance starts paying for the wear and tear on local facilities and reiterates a pledge that the troops will have only defensive or peacekeeping responsibilities, the Washington Post reported today.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov said NATO's request would be reviewed by the government next week and suggested that the only major issue would be an agreement on "appropriate financial arrangements."

The additional troops would bring the total to 30,000 in Macedonia, on Kosovo's southern border. Albania would host another 15,000 to 20,000 troops under the new NATO plan.

Albania, which is not a member of NATO, staged its own show of force Friday on its border with Yugoslavia, assembling 1,200 troops and several tanks for an hourlong live-fire exercise that sent up puffs of smoke and bursts of flame on the nearby hillsides.

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