LONDON -- Despite determined Serbian opposition to a NATO-led force to police a Kosovo peace settlement, international mediators detected enough movement on political issues yesterday to extend until Tuesday a deadline for Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators to accept a deal over the embattled province.
Working seven hours past an initial deadline in a 14th-century chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, weary diplomats emerged to announce the latest step back from the brink in the Balkans. NATO had threatened airstrikes, principally against Serbian defense targets, if a deal weren't done by "high noon" yesterday.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the two sides were "very, very close" to an agreement on a political settlement that would bring substantial autonomy but not outright independence for Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.
"That is a tremendous step forward," Cook said during a news conference that confirmed the new deadline of Tuesday at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EST).
The sticking point remains Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's opposition to foreign troops policing a deal on Serbian soil.
"The Serbs' refusal to even consider the peace implementation force is largely responsible for our failure to reach an agreement," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said.
In a joint statement, foreign ministers from the so-called Contact Group composed of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia said that the progress made "justifies an ultimate effort" to reach an overall settlement.
The delaying tactics of the Serbian delegates -- apparently following the orders of Milosevic, who remained in Belgrade -- irked Albright.
She said, "It would be a grave mistake for Milosevic to miscalculate our intentions."
The foreign ministers "expect nothing less than a complete interim agreement including Belgrade's acceptance of a NATO-led force," Albright said.
"Until the parties have accepted all provisions of the agreement, preparations for NATO military action will continue. And if that agreement is not confirmed by Tuesday, [NATO] Secretary-General [Javier] Solana will draw the appropriate conclusions," she said.
More than 2,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands rendered homeless during yearlong fighting in Kosovo between heavily armed Serbian security forces and a rebel ethnic Albanian force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Kosovo remains a province of Serbia, the dominant republic, along with Montenegro, in what remains of Yugoslavia. The country is under the thumb of its president, Milosevic.
An acknowledged master of timing and finding divisions in the international community, Milosevic was expected to bring the talks to the brink -- and beyond.
But Kosovo clearly presents a special case for Milosevic. The area is considered by many Serbs to be the cradle of their nation, rich in history, churches and monasteries.
To hand over Kosovo to the ethnic Albanian majority, or to let the area be policed by a NATO-led force, would constitute a major defeat for Milosevic, whose rise to power was fueled by nationalistic fervor.
The Serbian delegates worked to accept the political part of the deal, even as they balked at accepting peacekeepers.
Under the proposed political agreement, the ethnic Albanians would receive substantial autonomy, with control over police, courts and a democratically elected assembly. The Serbs would continue to control the province's borders.
Ethnic Albanians are still bidding for outright independence and are seeking to nail down a referendum after three years of interim self-rule. The vote would leave open the possibility for choosing statehood, the Associated Press reported, quoting a senior U.S. official traveling with Albright.
As the talks dragged on, nerves apparently became frayed. Hashim Thaqi, political director of the Kosovo Liberation Army, told reporters: "I'm being blackmailed, I'm being pressured and very recently I had threats from the Serbian side saying if you don't sign the agreement, we will kill you."
The talks revealed splits among the negotiators, with the Americans, British and French taking a hard line against the Serbs, the Russians continuing to voice opposition to airstrikes, and the Italians trying to spread the blame for the stalemate.
Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said, "It would be wrong to blame only the Serbs."
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine cautioned the Yugoslav government, "Until such time as the whole agreement has been agreed, no individual item of it can come to fruition."
On the issue of peacekeepers, Vedrine said, "We have not given up on convincing the government of Yugoslavia."
For weeks, NATO has been wielding a stick and a carrot, preparing an aerial armada and a peacekeeping force. With more than 400 planes on standby and cruise missiles readied on ships in the region, it is poised to strike Serbian and Yugoslav military targets in a multiphase military campaign. Under this scenario, Milosevic would be allowed to reconsider his position, as the ante was raised with each series of bombing runs.
But before strikes could begin, 1,200 international monitors of the Kosovo Verification Mission would have to be withdrawn from Kosovo.
Only then would a real countdown to bombing begin.
In the meantime, a peacekeeping force of up to 30,000 troops -- including 4,000 U.S. soldiers -- is being assembled, with the first waves due to enter Kosovo soon after a deal is reached.
Even as negotiations continue, Kosovo remains dangerous. There were reports of Serbian shelling of an ethnic Albanian village yesterday. Observers also detected substantial movement of Yugoslav army troops in Kosovo and southern Serbia.
International monitors also retreated from an area in western Kosovo after residents threw rocks and firecrackers.
Western embassies continued to evacuate staff from Belgrade.
Pub Date: 2/21/99