U.S. still pushes for deal with Milosevic

Indictment doesn't alter its diplomatic strategy

War In Yugoslavia

May 28, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and four others, the United States and its Western allies made no change yesterday in their strategy of pushing for a diplomatic settlement with the Yugoslav president, even while expanding NATO's 2-month-old bombing campaign.

A senior American envoy continued yesterday to deal with Milosevic through a Russian intermediary, as pressure grew on the West to broker an end to the Kosovo conflict and to mount a peacekeeping operation before the onset of the Balkan winter four months from now.

"We will continue to apply pressure and intensify the air campaign until he realizes that the only way for him to end the conflict is to accept NATO's conditions," said Mike Hammer, a White House spokesman.

The Clinton administration will not expand its war aims to include bringing Milosevic to justice, officials say. While Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright declared yesterday that "he needs to be in The Hague," the site of the International War Crimes Tribunal, she avoided answering a question about how he could be apprehended.

Officials said it was chiefly up to Yugoslavia to turn over indicted war crimes suspects. But they held out little hope that this would happen to Milosevic soon.

In moving ahead diplomatically, the administration disregarded a stern warning from Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal, who said the evidence underlying the indictment had exposed the Serb leaders' "unsuitability" as peace partners.

"Although the accused are entitled to the benefit of the presumption of innocence until they are convicted, the evidence upon which this indictment was confirmed raises serious questions about their suitability to be the guarantors of any deal, let alone a peace agreement," Arbour said in a statement.

Winter looms

But with the air campaign doing little to force the 40,000 Serb troops out of Kosovo, the Western leadership is under pressure if it wants to avoid either of two difficult scenarios: fighting a war into next winter or caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees in frigid camps in Albania and Macedonia.

Arbour seemed to distinguish between negotiating with Milosevic, something she has no objection to, and relying on him to carry out an agreement, which she opposes. "I don't think it's for me to pass comment or judgment on how politicians will now decide to manage a very complex, complicated and difficult peace process," she said.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has been working for the past two weeks with Moscow's envoy to the Balkans, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to try to pressure Milosevic into withdrawing his forces from Kosovo. The three met in Moscow this week, and Chernomyrdin is due to fly to Belgrade today to meet with Milosevic.

"This is a very important call from a diplomatic perspective -- whether to pursue a solution in the normal way or to say Arbour is right," said Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute Of Peace. "The pressure to get a quick solution -- even a dirty one -- is there."

A refusal to deal with Milosevic, Serwer said, might encourage potential opponents in Belgrade to seek the overthrow of Milosevic.

U.S. officials insist that they are not actually negotiating with Milosevic, though they won't rule out doing so in the future.

With Russia publicly denouncing the Milosevic indictment yesterday, there was little doubt that it has severely complicated the diplomatic efforts. Senior U.S. officials said the increased pressure on Milosevic could make him either more or less amenable to a deal acceptable to NATO.

"The people around him may conclude that this is the end of the regime and they should accede to NATO's terms," said James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman.

No one from the administration has met with him since before NATO launched an air war against Yugoslavia on March 24. Instead, Albright and Talbott have dealt with Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, who, in turn, has shuttled between Belgrade and Moscow to negotiate with the Yugoslav president.

Chernomyrdin makes threat

Chernomyrdin, who has pushed to end the NATO airstrikes, threatened in an article published yesterday to suspend his diplomatic efforts so long as the bombing continues.

NATO refuses to stop the bombing until Milosevic starts to withdraw his forces, agrees to an armed international force into Kosovo that would guarantee the safe return of the ethnic Albanian refugees, and accepts significant autonomy for the province.

A senior State Department official insisted that the United States was not ignoring Arbour's warning despite the U.S. pursuit of a diplomatic solution that requires his involvement.

"What she meant is, `You can't trust him and his cronies,' and we agree totally," this official said. "You can't trust him. That's why we insist that his forces leave."

In preparing a force that would enter Kosovo and protect returning refugees, the West insists it be well-armed and fall under NATO's command.

"The whole point of a force with a NATO core is you can't trust him," the official said. "The security [for the returning Kosovars] will not in any way rely on him or his bona fides."

The West is not necessarily seeking a signed agreement with Milosevic, the official said; only a withdrawal and his acquiescence in an international protectorate for Kosovo.

"We're not looking for them to be the guarantors of an agreement. The only thing that counts at the end of the day is their withdrawing their forces."

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