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Holbrooke Holds Talks On Kosovo

May 11, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: May 11, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Richard C. Holbrooke, sent by the White House to try to defuse tensions in Serbia’s Kosovo province, made little headway in a first round of talks here with his old adversary, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Diplomats say events in Kosovo — where ethnic Albanians are demanding autonomy from the Serbian government — are rapidly spinning out of control and could engender a wider conflict. A key highway running through the province was blocked by Serbian police over the weekend because of attacks on it by ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.During nearly five hours of wide-ranging talks Saturday night, Milosevic — formerly president of Serbia and now leader of the two-republic Yugoslav state that Serbia dominates — rejected demands for outside mediation in the crisis. A statement from his office also condemned a tightening of economic sanctions on Yugoslavia by Western powers.

Holbrooke and Robert S. Gelbard, the senior U.S. envoy for Balkan affairs, are to return to Belgrade Monday for more discussions with Milosevic. From Belgrade, Holbrooke and Gelbard flew to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to meet with Ibrahim Rugova, political leader of ethnic Albanians in the province — who outnumber local Serbs by 9 to 1. His peaceful campaign for independence has been undermined by the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a militant group backed by radical Albanians in exile that is stepping up raids on Serbian security forces.

The United States has condemned the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist organization. Rugova denies any links with the rebels but is resisting Western pressure to denounce them. The group has broad support among ethnic Albanians and is growing in numbers and strength with weapons smuggled across mountains from Albania.

Asked in Pristina how the conflict could be resolved, Holbrooke replied: “I have no idea.” “While I would not describe the effort we are engaged in as a formal negotiation, it is nonetheless a discussion, and the issues are very complicated. We are not presenting a U.S. plan. We are here to listen and learn, and what we’ve heard here has been very useful,” he said. Holbrooke’s first mission to Kosovo reflects Washington’s mounting concern that the low-level conflict, which has claimed more than 150 lives this year, will engulf neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

A Wall Street banker since leaving government service, Holbrooke knows Milosevic well, having spent long sessions in Belgrade and in Dayton, Ohio, negotiating the accord that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war. His job then was made easier by U.S. airstrikes on Bosnian Serb forces. Diplomats say similar intervention in Kosovo is not in the cards.

The U.S. envoys flew today from Pristina to Tirana, the Albanian capital. NATO has already turned down requests by Prime Minister Fatos Nano for help in securing his northern border, where his weakened army is no match against powerful clan leaders, criminal gangs and arms smugglers.

Inside Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army is believed to have a core of about 500 militiamen but has distributed weapons to as many as several thousand villagers. Serbian security forces control major towns in the province, but tensions are rising in them as well with the influx of thousands of Serbian and ethnic Albanian refugees. Since Friday, police have blocked traffic on the main highway linking Pristina in central Kosovo with the western town of Pec. The road divides the two main separatist strongholds in the central Drenica area and along the southwest border with Albania. Armed elements on both sides believe all-out war is inevitable, but diplomats hope that economic pressure on Milosevic, combined with financial and political inducements, will persuade him to negotiate a settlement.

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