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Allies issue ultimatum on Kosovo; Major powers order factions into talks leading to self-rule; Deadline in three weeks; NATO threatening airstrikes if either side in dispute balks


LONDON -- The United States and its major European allies have bluntly ordered the warring factions in Kosovo, Serbia, 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 bombing campaign.

The ultimatum yesterday 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 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 K. Albright and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia issued their demand yesterday after losing patience with the refusal of Yugoslavian 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 would "hold both sides accountable" if they fail to make peace in three weeks. It did not specify the consequences, but Albright said NATO 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.

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 ContactGroup has acted, NATO is expected to issue a more specific threat of airstrikes on Serbian targets if Milosevic drags his feet.

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.

U.S. officials said the U.N. Security Council will be asked next week to endorse the Contact Group plan although not the NATO threat of force.

A senior official said Security Council backing would add political clout to the allies' plan.

He said China is not expected to veto the plan; the other four veto-wielding countries are members of the Contact Group.

The Contact Group summoned the Yugoslavian government and representatives of the ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of the province's population to meet no later than Feb. 6 at Rambouillet, 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 falls short of meeting their demand for total independence.

But U.S. officials say the parties might go along with the compromise now because they face the threat of military force.

NATO and the Contact Group also demanded that Milosevic live up to 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.

The Contact Group also ordered Milosevic to stop blocking efforts by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague to investigate the killing of 45 ethnic Albanians in the town of Racak this month.

U.S. diplomat William Walker has accused Serbian security forces of conducting a massacre, but Milosevic said the victims died in combat between government forces and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the Contact Group believes that a "critical mass" of ethnic Albanians will back the talks, enough to provide a representative delegation.

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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