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Friday, February 19, 1999 Published at 16:36 GMT

World: Europe

Analysis: Eleventh-hour Balkan diplomacy

Muscle-flexing: Nato troops prepare for action in Macedonia

By South East Europe Analyst Gabriel Partos

Last-ditch diplomatic moves are underway to secure an agreement at the Kosovo peace talks before the deadline for reaching a deal runs out at midday [1100 GMT] on Saturday.

Kosovo Section
The latest attempts to rescue the peace talks include a visit to Belgrade by the American mediator, Christopher Hill - which now appears to have been rebuffed by the Serbs - and the planned presence at Rambouillet of the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Mr Hill's visit was his second in a week. On Tuesday, he was accompanied by his fellow-mediators from the European Union and Russia when he met the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

[ image: Mr Hill will flesh out the US warning in more detail]
Mr Hill will flesh out the US warning in more detail
Since Russia is firmly opposed to Nato air strikes against Serbian targets and attitudes within the EU are somewhat ambivalent, the warning given to Mr Milosevic may not have been as unequivocal as Washington would have liked.

Friday's apparently unsuccessful visit saw Mr Hill is acting purely as an American representative, backing up the public warning given by Mrs Albright that Serbian forces would be hit hard if Belgrade failed to agree to a deal.

As the countdown continues non-essential staff and dependants at several foreign embassies have started to leave Belgrade in anticipation of possible Nato air strikes against Serbia.

It seems it may yet take more high-ranking officials than Mr Hill to persuade the Serbs to give in to the demand for the deployment of a Nato-led peace implementation force in Kosovo.

Balkan brinkmanship

That could mean that one or more foreign ministers of the six-power Contact Group may now have to fly to Belgrade to give added weight to the warnings about the consequences of refusing to sign up to a deal.

The on-going frantic diplomatic activity is the latest example in a pattern established by Mr Milosevic during several Balkan conflicts; taking matters to the brink in the hope of securing last-minute concessions.

That was the case most recently in October, when Mr Milosevic agreed to a ceasefire as Nato's deadline for air strikes against Serbia was only hours away.

No guarantees

This time the Serbian strongman is believed to be holding out for the speedy lifting of a whole range of international sanctions on his country.

But just because in the past Mr Milosevic has tended to give in at the last minute, there is no guarantee that this would happen again at Rambouillet.

That is why America is sending more aircraft to the region and that is why some countries have started pulling out their diplomats and dependants from Serbia - both moves signalling that air strikes may be imminent.

Extra time

The withdrawal of foreign diplomats is expected to take several days. It would also need to be accompanied by the evacuation of some 1,200 international monitors who have been deployed in Kosovo as part of the bargain struck in October.

Even if the evacuations are not interfered with on the ground, it is likely to take several days before the conditions are in place for air strikes.

That would give a further chance - in extra time - for behind-the-scenes negotiations to avert air strikes that would damage both Serbia's military potential and the West's relations with Russia.

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