Rebels now balk at deal; Suddenly U.S. finds ethnic Albanians at odds over peace plan; Kosovo referendum is issue; No pact, no bombing, Albright warns split Kosovar delegation


RAMBOUILLET, France -- With the Kosovo peace talks in limbo after ethnic Albanian delegates suddenly balked at the proposed deal, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright stated yesterday that NATO would not bomb the Serbs if the Albanians also spurned a peace settlement.

"If this fails because both parties say no, there will not be bombing of Serbia," Albright said after spending more than three hours with the ethnic Albanians.

The Albanians have long argued that airstrikes were the best way to end the repression by the Serbs in Kosovo and to force them to a peace deal before tomorrow's deadline.

For raids to be considered, the United States must have the ethnic Albanians agreeing to a peace settlement, leaving the Serbs and their leader, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, as the spoilers.

A day after reluctantly agreeing to extend the 2-week-old Kosovo talks here, Albright was the only foreign minister to visit the negotiations yesterday.

She urged ethnic Albanians to accept what is offered for Kosovo, rather than insisting on a referendum for Kosovo's independence, as demanded by the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

By nightfall, it was not clear whether the ethnic Albanians, who the United States thought would be the easy part of the equation in the talks, had returned to the fold.

Their sudden standoff Saturday left the talks in limbo. Combined with the refusal of the Serbs to accept NATO soldiers as peacekeepers in Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians' intransigence forced Albright and the other negotiators to move a deadline previously described as immovable back to tomorrow afternoon.

Albright had lunch with four ethnic Albanians, including Hashim Thaci, the influential 29-year-old guerrilla leader, and Veton Surroi, the publisher of the largest-circulation newspaper in Kosovo, who is considered the most pragmatic man on the 16-man ethnic Albanian delegation.

On Saturday, according to participants at the conference, Surroi gave an impassioned speech to his colleagues, urging them to stop being shortsighted and to sign so that pressure could be exerted on Milosevic to accept North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops or face airstrikes by the alliance.

At the heart of the objections, which were made by the five delegates who are members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, was the fact that the draft proposal lacked the word "referendum."

The mantra of the guerrillas has been that after the three years of autonomy envisaged by the proposed peace accord, a referendum on Kosovo, where 90 percent of residents are ethnic Albanians, would result in their long-sought independence from Serbia.

Surroi, who is fluent in English and well traveled, remarked last week that the "referendum had become a four-letter word" for the foreign mediators at the peace talks.

In fact, the ethnic Albanians have won considerable leeway in the latest drafts of the political settlement, including a reference to an international conference which, among other things, would consider "the will of the people" when the province's final status is decided in three years.

Albright also spent an hour yesterday with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, trying to persuade the Serbs to drop their opposition to NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.

The Clinton administration has insisted that a 28,000-member NATO-led force, including 4,000 U.S. soldiers, is an integral part of a peace settlement for Kosovo.

Without foreign soldiers to oversee the withdrawal of Serbian security police, who have conducted most of the repression in Kosovo in the past year, and the withdrawal of soldiers of the Yugoslav army, a peace settlement would never become reality on the ground, administration officials say.

The secretary apparently made much less progress with Milutinovic, who is Milosevic's man in Rambouillet, than with the ethnic Albanians.

After her meeting with Milutinovic, Albright said the Serbs continued to refuse to deal with the military aspects of the agreement.

They have objected to NATO peacekeepers on the grounds that they represent an infringement of the sovereignty of Yugoslavia and Serbia.

Yugoslavia is composed of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo, stripped of its autonomy in 1989 by Milosevic, is a province of Serbia.

Washington hopes to have the ethnic Albanians signed on to the peace deal by today so that attention can turn to Milosevic.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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