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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 11:03 GMT

Analysis: The elusive peace deal

"Tomorrow is too late," Albanians warned the international community

By South-East Europe Analyst Gabriel Partos

When the Contact Group summoned Serbian and Kosovar Albanian representatives to the Rambouillet peace conference at the end of last month, it set a strict timetable for a deal to be reached.

Kosovo Section
It came in the form of an ultimatum - sign up to an agreement within a week - extendable by a further seven days - or face severe consequences. The threats included Nato air strikes against Serbian targets, and moves to cut off the supply lines of the ethnic Albanians' Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA.

The Contact Group's tight schedule was not an arbitrary move. Time and time again in the past, attempts to find a settlement to the Kosovo conflict have foundered on the prevarication and delaying tactics of the opposing sides.

Most recently, as part of a ceasefire deal reached in October, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to introduce measures towards restoring a degree of self-rule in Kosovo.

But in the past four months no progress has been made on the political front, while the ceasefire on the ground has collapsed and large-scale fighting could flare up again in the spring.

Half-hearted acceptance

The Rambouillet peace conference was designed to avert the slide-back to all-out confrontation by producing an interim three-year deal on Kosovo's future - and equally importantly, by providing for a multi-national peacekeeping force to help implement it.

[ image: Yugoslav troops backed up Serb police after renewed fighting in Kosovo]
Yugoslav troops backed up Serb police after renewed fighting in Kosovo
But the outcome of Rambouillet - at least what's happened so far - is far more ambiguous than the Contact Group would have liked.

After intense pressure, the ethnic Albanian side has agreed to sign the document. But that promise is subject to consultations with other Kosovar leaders and grassroots supporters over the coming weeks.

That half-hearted and conditional acceptance raises several question marks over the authority of the 15-strong Albanian negotiating side which was supposed to represent the whole range of ethnic Albanian views.

And more importantly, it begs the question of what happens if supporters at home, particularly the KLA, turn down the deal.

Belgrade off the hook

The ethnic Albanians' ambiguous stance may have helped President Milosevic avoid Nato air strikes against Serbia.

Although the momentum for air strikes has in any case been weakening within the Contact Group - and is strongly opposed by one of its members, Russia - with the Albanians' reluctance to sign up to a deal, Belgrade appears to have been let off the hook - at least temporarily.

Indeed, it is not clear at all whether Serbia has agreed to the autonomy deal, other than in its broad outlines, and it is continuing to oppose any foreign military presence without which the chances of a deal being implemented are slim.

Situation still fraught

As the Contact Group reconvenes the peace talks to get the signatures on the political accords and then discuss the details of its implementation, the situation remains fraught with difficulties.

The promised signatures to the political accords may not materialise; and the subsequent talks on implementation may get bogged down in lengthy arguments.

That could further batter the major powers' reputation for peacemaking after these have already been dented by their failure to ensure compliance with a series of deadlines.

In the meantime, the greatest danger is that the violence which has already brought so much suffering to Kosovo continues to escalate.

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