Defiant Milosevic continues to keep NATO at bay


As Washington sought to build a consensus in NATO for air attacks on Yugoslavia, the US special envoy, Mr Richard Holbrooke, gave President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia another chance to bow to international demands and avoid air strikes.

Mr Holbrooke held a third round of talks with Mr Milosevic in Belgrade after failing twice to persuade the defiant Serb leader to pull out more forces from Kosovo province and enter negotiations with ethnic Albanians on the future of the province.

The talks ended after more than four hours, and Mr Holbrooke immediately left Belgrade for Brussels to meet the UN Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, and the Secretary-General of NATO, Mr Javier Solana.

Mr Holbrooke refused to comment on the outcome of the talks. However, he described the situation as "extremely serious".

In Washington, President Clinton reiterated that Mr Milosevic had to end his crackdown in Kosovo, pull out his special police force and resume negotiations. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the main republic of Yugoslavia. Ninety per cent of Kosovo's two million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, and most favour independence or substantial self-rule.

Mr Milosevic began his crackdown in February against the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which is fighting for independence for Kosovo. Hundreds have been killed and more than 250,000 people have been driven from their homes.

A decision on the strikes is possible by the weekend, after Ms Al bright meets NATO officials and Mr Holbrooke in Brussels today.

Despite mounting evidence of Mr Milosevic's failure to comply and a UN declaration confirming it, Washington seemed to lack the international consensus needed to bomb Mr Milosevic into compliance.

"We are continuing to push for military action against the Serbs," the US State Department spokesman, Mr James Rubin, said. "NATO is not there yet."

US officials also face strong opposition from Russia, whose Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, warned yesterday the move could lead to even more bloodshed in Kosovo.

"We evaluate that this is not a penalty or punishment of an isolated country, but almost a real war," Marshal Sergeyev said in Athens.

Apparently playing on Russia's opposition to strikes and lack of consensus within NATO, Mr Milosevic remained defiant.

The US is trying to get Mr Milosevic and the ethnic Albanians to agree on a deal that would defer for two or three years a decision on whether Kosovo would separate from Serbia.

The fact that Mr Holbrooke and Mr Milosevic agreed to a third meeting yesterday indicated that there was still a chance for an agreement.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric out of Washington was uncompromising. "I do not believe the United States can be in a position, I do not believe NATO can be in a position, of letting tens of thousands of people starve or freeze to death this winter", said President Clinton.

In Brussels, Mr Solana said "NATO will take a decision of their own." That implied the alliance would not insist on the UN approval some US allies and Russia believe necessary.

In Belgrade, the city government said it was making preparations for possible strikes. Warning sirens blared in some Serbian towns. Some opposition parties said mobilisation of air defence reservists was under way.

Meanwhile, Mr Milosevic tried to show that he was working to settle Kosovo crisis by dispatching the Serbian Prime Minister, Mr Mirko Marjanovic, to the province and inviting the 54-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to the area.

Belgrade's state-run Politika daily carried a front-page headline saying all police actions have ceased in Kosovo. But Mr Milosevic has a long history of breaking promises and international diplomatic observers have disputed Serb claims.

Poland's Foreign Minister, Mr Bronislaw Geremek, the current chairman of OSCE, expressed disappointment with Yugoslavia's offer, saying it allowed for a "brief, improvised" mission to Kosovo, which he described as different from what the OSCE wanted.

A NATO official said an estimated 14,000 Yugoslav army troops remain in Kosovo, down from 36,000 10 days earlier. That is in addition to 11,000 special military and anti-terrorist police, half the total in all of Yugoslavia.

He also said 50,000 refugees remain without shelter, and that at least 15 per cent of buildings in central and western Kosovo have been damaged or destroyed.

Western leaders say all moves to end the conflict must be verifiable and irreversible.