U.S. stepping up pressure for peace plan in Kosovo; Holbrooke to seek accord in Belgrade


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration intensified efforts to end fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo yesterday, tapping special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to wring agreement from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for a U.S.-brokered peace plan.

The State Department also reported a new pledge by the Kosovo Liberation Army to sign the accord, signaling that the ethnic Albanian rebels had buried their internal disagreements under heavy Western pressure.

The latest developments brought the clearest signs in a week of progress toward a peace agreement and the expected deployment of a 28,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo that would include up to 4,000 American soldiers.

But they occurred against an ominous backdrop of new friction between Serbs and the West in nearby Bosnia, where warring sides are separated by European and American peacekeepers. And U.S. officials offered no assurance that a peace deal for Kosovo actually will be reached.

Administration officials said Holbrooke, who has been nominated as ambassador to the United Nations, would go to Yugoslavia in time to hold meetings in Belgrade, the capital, tomorrow.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Holbrooke would convey to Serb officials "the necessity for full compliance with all of their commitments to the international community."

Holbrooke has the administration's best track record of gaining cooperation from Milosevic, having brought him into the 1995 negotiations over Bosnia that ended with the Dayton accords.

He also won a cease-fire from Milosevic and the KLA in October, but it was in tatters two months later, necessitating a new diplomatic campaign to end the war. Western officials fear that Kosovo could spark a regional conflict.

Holbrooke's foray provides him with his first opportunity to demonstrate anew his negotiating skills since the end of a months-long ethics probe that clouded his confirmation prospects.

The banker-diplomat was absent from the recent peace conference at Rambouillet, outside Paris, which ended in failure when neither the ethnic Albanians nor the Serbian government signed an agreement largely written by the United States.

A new conference is set for Monday, at which time officials hope to have agreement from both sides.

The State Department reported the KLA's peace pledge with a note of skepticism yesterday. Saying that the rebel army's general staff had "authorized" the signing of an agreement, Rubin called the move "significant," but added: "The point is that until an agreement is signed, it's not signed."

The Albanian delegation left Rambouillet split on the deal. Resistance within some parts of the rebel army persisted over last weekend, when former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole journeyed to Macedonia to persuade the Albanians to sign on. They promised him they would sign by Sunday, but failed to do so.

Meanwhile, the shaky peace in Bosnia grew more uncertain over the weekend with two key decisions by the West's top representative, who wields considerable sway as a result of the Dayton accords.

Serbs were infuriated when the representative, Carlos Westendorp, denied the Serbs control over a key Bosnian city, Brcko, and instead placed it under joint Serbian, Muslim and Croatian authority. He also fired the elected Bosnian Serbian president, Nikola Poplasen, a hard-liner.

The two actions were not officially connected to developments in Kosovo, but showed that Western officials felt under no obligation to make any concessions to the Serbs.

In Kosovo, fighting worsened, according to the American diplomat who heads a team of monitors.

"It's getting more serious my understanding is there's been quite a bit of fighting today," said Ambassador William Walker, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in the southern Serbian province. He was quoted by Reuters news service.

International observers were prevented from witnessing the clashes and from intervening to reduce tension, Walker said, blaming both sides in the conflict.

"Each day the fighting seems to be getting a bit worse," Walker told reporters.

Pub Date: 3/09/99

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