Peace conference adjourned to provide `time for reflection'


The Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, must have broken out the Dom Perignon last night. For the second time in four days, a "firm" deadline requiring him to accept the deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo or face bombardment simply vanished. And Mr Milosevic did not even have to make fraudulent promises to obtain this miracle.

The foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group performed it for him by dissolving the Rambouillet peace conference after 17 days, without one signature to show for the conclave that was supposed to establish a democratic, autonomous Kosovo where ethnic Albanians would be protected by NATO from murderous Serb police and soldiers.

The US Secretary of State, Mrs Madeleine Albright, who kept saying that deadlines "concentrate the mind", suddenly discovered the merits of "time for reflection".

As they froze the "Kosovo process" until a new conference will meet somewhere in France on March 15th, the US, British and French foreign ministers vaunted as "an achievement" the broad agreement on the principle of Kosovar autonomy, already established when the conference opened on February 6th.

The Serbs will still not accept a NATO force or real democracy in Kosovo, Mrs Albright admitted. The ethnic Albanians have not given up their demand for a referendum on statehood.

So after we were told that in the absence of agreement more than 400 aircraft would attack Serb military installations, there are to be no air-strikes yet. And after we were promised that NATO troops would move into Kosovo "before the ink is dry", there is to be no peacekeeping force yet. Like Mr Milosevic on so many occasions, the foreign ministers simply changed their minds.

Mr Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, provoked cynical laughter when he told a press conference: "I do not think it would help if we focused on discord. Let us focus on what has been achieved."

The Serb and Albanian delegations were again reminded that they will "suffer the consequences" if they misbehave during the next three weeks, or fail to come to an agreement when their peace conference is reconvened. The killing in Kosovo is not likely to stop, but the ministers' threats rang hollow.

If Mr Milosevic was the undisputed winner of the Rambouillet conference, the credibility of the world's most powerful military alliance, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, was its first casualty. "The linkage of force and diplomacy", Mrs Albright claimed, "did move this process forward".

Mrs Albright and the US negotiator, Mr Christopher Hill, had from the outset overestimated their ability to railroad the Kosovar delegation. For nearly two weeks, the Albanians sat smoking smelly Yugoslav cigarettes and reading newspapers while the Americans devoted their efforts to convincing the Serbs.

Allowing the Russians to veto a NATO presence at the conference was another US error, rectified only on the last night, when Gen Wesley Clarke, NATO's highest officer, was brought in to remonstrate with a 29-year-old Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla leader named Mr Hashim Thaci, better known as "The Snake".

Mr Thaci alone among the 15 Kosovars refused to endorse the Contact Group's draft agreement. The US turned up the pressure.

Mrs Albright repeatedly telephoned Mr Thaci's political boss, Mr Adem Demaci, in Slovenia. The Foreign Minister of Albania was brought in from Tirana to plead with the Kosovars. Mr Thaci would not budge, and the commitment by the Albanians to sign the agreement "after consultation with [their] people" was the compromise solution.

Mrs Albright said yesterday that NATO cannot bombard Serbia unless the Kosovar Albanians create "a black and white situation" by signing the agreement. In the three weeks, she is inviting KLA leaders to Washington and inviting the Albanians of Kosovo to turn against any leaders "who don't want peace".