Kosovo peace talks collapse

Yugoslav generals balk over troop pullout and NATO control of peacekeeping force.


Laura Rozen
June 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The celebrated Kosovo peace process fell apart early Monday morning as NATO officers walked out of a second day of fruitless talks with Yugoslav generals in a tent-hangar at a dusty French military base near the Macedonia-Yugoslavia border. The truce is over, for now, before it even began. Officials said NATO would intensify its bombing of Serbia, and indeed, almost immediately the sound of planes, absent earlier in the evening, could be heard overhead.

"The Yugoslav delegation presented a proposal that would not guarantee the safe return of all the refugees or the full withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces," said British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, who is to head the NATO peacekeeping force for Kosovo, as he walked out of the talks after 2:30 a.m. Monday. "NATO therefore has no alternative but to continue and indeed intensify the air campaign until such time as the Yugoslav side are prepared to implement the agreement fully and without ambiguity."

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Outside the camouflage-style military tent hangar near the Macedonian-Serbian border, where a NATO delegation led by the tall, fierce-looking Jackson held some 16 hours of talks with three Serbian generals Sunday, details of the major sticking points were hard to come by. Most sources agreed that the Serbs wanted to extend the deadline for troop withdrawal from Kosovo by a week or two, and also to increase the number of military and police officers it could station inside the province.

But Nebojsa Bujovic, Yugoslavia's deputy foreign minister, said the country's parliament had expected the peacekeeping forces to be "under the auspices of the U.N. or a presence established under a Security Council mandate," rather than NATO, as the NATO powers have insisted. That disagreement could delay a final accord significantly.

Analysts in Belgrade were at a loss to explain the collapse of the peace talks, which the Milosevic regime had already begun selling to the Serbian public as an effort to stop the increasingly destructive NATO bombing.

"We just don't know what's going on," said Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade political analyst and editor of "VIP News," who is rarely at a loss for insight into the machinations of the Milosevic regime. "The delegation of generals shouldn't be doing anything in the negotiations without Milosevic's knowledge."

"There are two possibilities," Grubacic continued. "That the Yugoslav Army generals are doing this [stalling] by themselves, under pressure from radical officers on the ground who haven't been defeated enough -- in effect that would be staging a kind of military coup. The second possibility is that Milosevic just wants to let them do this stalling over each detail because he wants to trade it for something more at the end. To say to NATO, 'See what I am faced with? I have to get this in order to close the deal.'"

Sources close to the talks say that the Serbs were more than simply haggling over details. They appeared to be hoping to buy time to negotiate an entirely new agreement by getting NATO to stop the bombing.

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A Western diplomat with experience negotiating with Serbs during the Croatian and Bosnian wars believes the stalling is part of a larger Serbian negotiating strategy designed to remake the peace agreement that had supposedly already been agreed to by Belgrade.

"It is classic Serb behavior to enter into an agreement and then to come up with various obstacles and excuses" for not honoring it, former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith told the BBC early Monday. "What is happening is that the Serbian generals, and perhaps Milosevic, are trying to revise the terms of the peace agreement, and are testing NATO. They are trying to see if they could get some more Serbian police in Kosovo, limit the number of Kosovar Albanian people who might return, decrease the demilitarized zone around Kosovo. That would be in character."

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"I suspect what Milosevic is trying to do is use the post-agreement phase to revise the agreement's terms in a more favorable way. That's the classic tactic," added Galbraith.

While the skies had been silent over Macedonia, NATO forces were continuing to pound Serbian positions on the border between Kosovo and Albania Monday night, where Serb forces have been in a fierce battle with members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. NATO has credited the KLA in recent days with helping to flush out Serbian forces from their hiding places in the area, allowing NATO planes to more effectively target them. Serbian forces are also reported to have shelled positions in northern Albania, forcing the Albanian military to relocate Kosovar refugees and aid groups in the north to points farther south.

And despite peace talks in neighboring Macedonia, dozens more Kosovar Albanian men streamed into Albania Sunday, saying they were part of a group of thousands of men being held under atrocious conditions by Serbian police in Kosovo prisons. In addition, NATO forces accused Serbs Sunday of stepping up a campaign of looting and pillaging of Albanian homes in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, and the southern city of Prizren.

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Despite signs at Kumanovo that talks between the two sides were definitely over for now and the war would continue, Jackson left open the possibility that talks could resume when the Serbs were ready for peace.

"We are prepared to meet with the Yugoslav delegation as necessary to achieve an unambiguous peace agreement," Jackson said. A NATO official close to the talks echoed Jackson, noting that the Serbian generals "have NATO's phone number."


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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