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Sunday, June 28, 1998 Published at 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK

World: Europe

US opens talks with Kosovo guerrillas

Villagers of Pantina escape Yugoslav army shelling on Saturday

The United States has confirmed that it has opened direct talks with ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

The American envoy, Richard Holbrooke, said negotiations began on Friday with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a group dismissed as terrorists by the Serbian authorities.

American reports say they are trying to negotiate a ceasefire.

[ image: Ethnic Albanians take up arms as shelling of their village continued]
Ethnic Albanians take up arms as shelling of their village continued
Neither the KLA representatives nor the European city where they met were identified.

The talks coincide with the setting up in Kosovo of a new party called the Albanian Democratic Movement which supports the KLA, and opposes the moderate ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova.

Mr Holbrooke said the talks with the KLA were being supported by Mr Rugova, but would not continue unless the KLA representatives prove they have real authority.

"If they can show that they actually have influence over the fighting in Kosovo, fighting which we wish to stop, then I think they have a legitimate role in the process," Mr Holbrooke said.

"But in no way should these contacts be read as undermining Mr Rugova," he added.

Richard Holbrooke: "It is not too late to find a peaceful solution and prevent a general war"
The American team is being led by the special envoy for the former Yugoslavia Robert Gelbard who has previously described the KLA as terrorists.

American and Russian teams of envoys in the region have so far failed to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia to call off the Serbian offensive in Kosovo as demanded by the ethnic Albanians.

The United Nations Security Council, which would authorise any international military intervention, is to discuss Kosovo on Monday.

Russia stands by Milosevic

On Saturday, a senior Russian envoy trying to secure peace in the Serbian province of Kosovo again spoke out against possible Nato military intervention.

[ image: The Russian envoy met Mr Milosevic on Friday]
The Russian envoy met Mr Milosevic on Friday
Speaking after talks with President Milosevic in Belgrade, the envoy, Nikolai Afanasyevski, said threats would only encourage ethnic Albanian separatists to step up the conflict.

Fighting has been continuing in the province, with Serbian forces reported to have flown supplies to a village, Kijevo, besieged by the KLA.

More than 300 people have died in Kosovo since early March in intensified fighting that began after Serbian police launched a crackdown against militant resistance, led by the KLA.

Serbian forces are trying to secure their hold on the province, where 90% of the population are ethnic Albanians.

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