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Peace Talks on Kosovo Begin

May 16, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: May 16, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the pro-independence leader of Kosovo’s Albanian majority, Ibrahim Rugova, expressed hopes that the peace process they began today could end the spiral of violence in the disputed Serbian province.

As expected, the U.S.-brokered meeting in the ceremonial White Palace in Belgrade produced no breakthrough. But the two leaders, who had never met during a decade of hostilities, agreed their negotiating teams would hold regular sessions, beginning next Friday in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.Rugova presented his demands for independence and sought the withdrawal of special Serbian police units that massacred villagers in raids on suspected strongholds of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in February and March. But in an important concession Rugova dropped his demand that international mediators play a direct role in the talks although he made clear that the United States would remain closely involved.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy who achieved what he called a “procedural breakthrough” in getting the two sides to start talks after three months of spreading violence, stayed in touch with events by telephone from a conference in Scotland. He said he was ready to return whenever needed.

Before meeting Milosevic, Rugova and his four advisers strolled under the spreading chestnut trees of the U.S. residence in Belgrade with Richard Miles, the American charge d’affaires. They were joined by Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia which, with its large ethnic Albanian minority, also risks being drawn into a low-level conflict in Kosovo between Kosovo Liberation Army rebels and Serbian security forces. More than 150 people have died in Kosovo this year.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the largest republic of what remains of Yugoslavia. About 90 percent of its 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanian. Rugova, a moderate whose “parallel government” says it will not abandon its policy of peaceful resistance to the Serbian regime, has no control over the rebel force.

Western diplomats expressed satisfaction that peace talks would continue. However, they worry that the Kosovo Liberation Army, which also has demanded a place at the negotiating table, will step up attacks and strike at towns where the greater number of Serbians in Kosovo live. The United States and its European allies are likely to lift an investment ban imposed this month on Serbia if the government in Belgrade demonstrates it is committed to serious negotiations and keeps its poorly disciplined security forces in check.

Rugova, the self-styled president of the “Republic of Kosovo,” recognized by no government, is expected to visit Washington soon. “It seems there is a readiness to move ahead to a political solution of the Kosovo crisis,” Rugova said, describing the atmosphere of his 90-minute meeting with Milosevic as one of “tolerance and understanding.”

Milosevic, who leads an increasingly reclusive existence behind the high walls of his residence, did not meet with reporters. “This meeting could be considered as the start toward a peaceful solution of the Kosovo crisis,” he said in a statement. Milosevic has proposed strictly limited autonomy for the province. The international community is urging substantial self-rule.

Veton Suroi, a member of Rugova’s negotiating team, said the talks were an “optimistic first step” but that “serious and deep differences” divided the two sides. Analysts say Milosevic, who fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism in Kosovo to fuel his rise to power a decade ago, is using the conflict again to shore up his waning authority and to undermine his pro-Western rivals ruling the other Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

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