WASHINGTON -- After 17 days of diplomacy marked by repeated American threats of force, Western nations suspended negotiations toward bringing peace to the Serbian province of Kosovo yesterday, failing to gain full agreement from either the Yugoslav government or the ethnic Albanians.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and her counterparts from Britain and France ended talks in Rambouillet, outside Paris, with a promise to hold a new conference March 15 somewhere in France.
At that point, they hope at least to have won full acceptance of a proposed settlement from the rebel Kosovo Albanians, who said they needed the delay to rally support from their people and institutions.
The ethnic Albanian delegation reportedly favored the NATO pact 14-1, with only Hashim Thaqi, the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, objecting. By consensus, the delay was approved instead.
With the Kosovars' acceptance, the West could then pressure Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept the deal -- but could launch airstrikes against his forces if he remains the lone holdout.
The new date marks the third extension of a deadline for accepting the deal.
As fighting went on in Kosovo yesterday, it was uncertain if any peace could be achieved without new bloodshed in a yearlong conflict that has claimed 2,000 lives.
"We have done a lot here, even if we've not yet done enough," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said as the talks ended.
Albright, who had invested many hours and substantial prestige in the effort, put the best possible face on what clearly was a setback in her efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.
She cited the gains made toward a political settlement, with the Serbs agreeing to grant the province substantial autonomy.
While acknowledging that "we have not reached full agreement today," Albright said, "we have decisively broken the stalemate that hung over Kosovo for so long."
"We will leave Rambouillet with something that months of shuttle negotiations and years of international concern had not achieved -- a viable plan for autonomy and democracy in Kosovo through an interim political settlement," she said.
Washington analysts were not so upbeat: "We failed, and we're trying to figure out a way to avoid saying we failed," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution.
Retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, who was NATO's top commander prior to the current commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, said the winner in the peace talks was clearly Milosevic. He faulted the extensions.
"Don't make a deadline unless you're willing to carry it out," Joulwan said. "It could have repercussions not just in Kosovo and Bosnia but elsewhere.
"We need to have a strategy, not just sound-bite diplomacy. We have not covered ourselves in glory on this one."
The latest diplomatic efforts were spurred by the international outrage that followed a massacre in January in which Serb security forces killed 45 ethnic Albanians. The talks at Rambouillet were loosely modeled on the negotiations led by the American envoy Richard Holbrooke at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 that ended four years of fighting in another area of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, among Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims and Croats.
There were key differences: Milosevic came to Dayton and was ready to make a deal. And Bosnian Serbs already had been weakened by NATO airstrikes.
This time, Milosevic remained in Belgrade and balked at a key plank of the proposed deal: deploying up to 30,000 NATO troops -- including 4,000 Americans -- to implement any peace agreement.
The threat of airstrikes was repeated as recently as Friday, when President Clinton, meeting at the White House with French President Jacques Chirac, said the two allies stood "united in our determination to use force, if Serbia fails to meet its previous commitment to withdraw forces from Kosovo and if it fails to accept the peace agreement."
The Pentagon stepped up its presence in the region, dispatching about 60 more planes, including six B-52 bombers and a dozen radar-evading F-117 Nighthawk fighters. They would be part of 400 NATO aircraft that could take part in bombing attacks.
But having said it would be an error to extend a deadline originally set for Feb. 12 and then moved to 6 a.m. last Saturday, Clinton agreed to a further extension that prolonged the talks until 9 a.m. yesterday.
By then, the Serbs continued to resist the idea of a NATO peacekeeping force. But the administration also failed to win over the Albanians, who had been expected to accept an agreement. Their leaders approved the deal in principle yesterday but postponed signing it until they could build support among the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
"We were supposed to deliver the Albanians, and we couldn't do it," said Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In a final push to win over the ethnic Albanians, Albright, in France, telephoned Bob Dole in Washington yesterday morning and asked him to help. Dole, who has been sympathetic to ethnic Albanians for years, called Adem Demaci, a spokesman for the political wing of the KLA and an important holdout on the deal.
"I told him, 'Do you want to be blamed for this?' " Dole said. He said he hoped Demaci would recognize that a three-year interim agreement, with NATO forces on the ground, was a "big opportunity for the Kosovars."
"It seems to me if it all fails because of the intransigence of one or two hard-line Albanians, it would be a travesty," he said.
The interim settlement, largely drafted by the United States, offered the Kosovars substantial autonomy, but not independence. Kosovars would give up their heavy weapons in exchange for protection by the NATO soldiers, and the Serb forces would be sharply reduced.
The plan calls for an international conference to be held after three years to assess the "will of the people" in Kosovo. It does not mention an election on the issue of independence, which the Kosovars have demanded and the Serbs strongly oppose.
"People are trying to rescue as much of a political settlement as possible, but that can't hide the fact you've had a train wreck," Serwer said.
Over the next three weeks, Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy who has been working full time to end the Kosovo fighting, will continue his shuttle diplomacy.
Asked about the possibility of renewed violence between the Serbs and the KLA, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon noted that the NATO "activation order" for bombing is still in effect.
"If the Serbs were to launch a vicious attack, a massacre, as they have in the past, I think NATO would take that very seriously and would react," Bacon said.
Just before the deadline passed, a second straight day of clashes occurred in Kosovo. The fighting went on sporadically throughout the day.
Pub Date: 2/24/99