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Sunday, February 7, 1999 Published at 03:00 GMT

World: Europe

'History in their hands'

The conference was opened by President Jacques Chirac

The peace conference on Kosovo has finally convened after a three-hour delay due to a Serb refusal to let the ethnic Albanian delegation leave for France.

Kosovo Section
In an address at a 14th-century chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, French President Jacques Chirac described it as an historic moment.

The BBC's David Shukman in Rambouillet: "Having got this far [...] there is a good chance that something will come out of it"
He said Europe, the US and Russia would not tolerate what he called a conflict that trampled on the basic principles of human dignity.

"There are rare moments when history is in the hands of only a few men. This is the case today as you take your places at this negotiating table," Mr Chirac told the delegates.

He also called on the Serbs and ethnic Albanians to accept the deployment of an international military force in the province.

The co-chairman of the talks, UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, said he remained cautious about the outcome.

Robin Cook: I am not going to assume success until we have achieved that success
As the negotiations in France started, reports from Kosovo said a suspected bomb killed at least three people at a vegetable store in the regional capital, Pristina.

It was the third reported bombing in Pristina in little more than a week.

Last-minute hitch

The talks at Rambouillet were delayed as the Serbian authorities prevented the KLA representatives from leaving Kosovo. They later revoked that decision.

Outside the chateau in France police security was tight as the Serb and Albanian delegations arrived separately.

[ image: Riot police guarding the conference venue]
Riot police guarding the conference venue
But even as they gathered in France, the Serb negotiators insisted they would not speak to "terrorists" - referring to the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

A senior Serb delegate, Vojislav Zevkovic, said "if the KLA shows up at the plenary session, we won't attend."

A BBC correspondent in Rambouillat, David Shukman, says the organisers have got round the problem by having the Serb team and the ethnic Albanian team in different rooms.

The international negotiators - US envoy Christopher Hill, European Union representative Wolfgang Petritsch and Russian diplomat Boris Mayorski - will then be shuttling between the two parties.

However, both delegations were reported to have been inside the chateau when President Chirac spoke.

International mediators say the two sides will be kept well away from the media and under constant pressure to reach a deal.

"Clearly I think they have to put aside their maximalist positions. The Albanians have to stop talking about independence, the Serbs have got to stop talking about status quo and we have to find something in the middle," Mr Hill said.

Autonomy plan

Conference chairman Robin Cook: "We will only commit troops in the event that we do not get a political settlement"
The peace conference is aimed at ending 11 months of bloodshed in separatist Kosovo which has left at least 2,000 people dead and thousands displaced.

The two sides will be presented with a draft plan by the six-nation Contact Group - made up of the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Italy - providing the basis for an agreement.

[ image:  ]
According to the UK newspaper The Financial Times, the proposal would remove virtually all of Serbia's jurisdiction over Kosovo and give the territory a high degree of autonomy with institutional ties to federal Yugoslavia.

The status of Kosovo would be reviewed after three years.

The proposal states that all paramilitary groups, including the KLA, would be dismantled within three months.

It also instructs Serbia to reduce its police force strength in Kosovo to 2,500 immediately, from the current level estimated at around 10,000.

A new police force reflecting the ethnic composition of Kosovo - almost 90% - would be set up.

The international monitoring mission in Kosovo would set a timetable for the remaining Serbian police to leave. The federal Yugoslav army would be scaled down.

If the two negotiating teams have not made significant progress by 12 February, the process will be extended by another week.

Nato has threatened military strikes if the parties fail to reach an agreement.

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