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Yugoslav Leader Rebuffs US Mediator

February 19, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Declaring he would not surrender Kosovo ``even at the price of bombing,″ Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused Friday to meet with a U.S. envoy sent to urge him to accept NATO troops as part of a peace accord with ethnic Albanians.

The envoy, Christopher Hill, left Friday afternoon to return to the Kosovo peace conference in Rambouillet, France, after delivering the appeal to Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic.

NATO has threatened to launch airstrikes if Serbs and ethnic Albanians fail to accept an internationally-sponsored peace plan by noon Saturday (6 a.m. EST).

``NATO is ready to take whatever measures are necessary, ... these include the use of airstrikes,″ NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said Friday in a statement.

Milosevic’s refusal to meet Hill makes attacks more likely. In an effort to salvage the conference, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was heading to Rambouillet. Her scheduled arrival, just before Saturday noon, suggested the deadline could be extended.

However, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart noted the deadline already has been extended once, and urged both sides to ``face the difficult choices to get a peace.″

With prospects for success dim, Canadian and some European diplomats began evacuating the Yugoslav capital. U.S. officials said in Washington that planning was under way to evacuate the 130 American diplomats and dependents in Yugoslavia and to assist 4,000 other Americans in leaving.

The State Department warned U.S. citizens Friday against travel to Serbia and strongly urged Americans in that country to depart. European Union nations also urged their citizens to leave Yugoslavia.

And the 1,300 workers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which oversees international monitors of the cease-fire in Kosovo, were ready to pull out should talks fail, said Col. Mike Philips. ``The levers are in place, and we are ready to pull them,″ Philips said.

About 2,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in a year of fighting between government forces and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, which seeks independence from Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic. Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million population, and most favor independence for the Serbian province.

To end the bloodshed, the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Italy have offered a peace plan to the warring parties that calls for 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops to enforce the agreement.

The presence of foreign forces, however, has emerged as the main stumbling block to Belgrade’s acceptance of the accord, which would provide sweeping autonomy for Kosovo.

There was no statement from the Yugoslav government on why Milosevic would not see Hill, one of the three principal negotiators at Rambouillet.

Before Hill arrived Friday, however, Milosevic denounced international threats that, as he put it, Yugoslavia ``will be bombed if it does not allow foreign occupation of part of its territory.″

``We will not give away Kosovo, not even at the price of bombing,″ Milosevic declared.

That message was echoed Friday in the government-controlled media, which appeared to be preparing the population for attacks. Travelers reported seeing heavy movement of troops, helicopters and jets in northern Serbia.

In the Kosovo capital Pristina, the province’s top Serbian official declared Friday that any uninvited foreign troops would be treated as aggressors. ``We will defend our territory from anybody,″ said Zoran Andjelkovic.

Lt. Gen. Spasoje Smiljanic, commander of the Yugoslav air force, said the country’s air defense was ready to ``defend the fatherland, especially Kosovo,″ the official news agency Tanjug reported Friday.

In Pristina, an ethnic Albanian economist, Halim Maliqi, said he was hoping the two sides would reach an accord.

``All people are afraid of what’s going to happen,″ Maliqi said. ``There’s been so much suffering in Kosovo, many innocent people died, and we all fear reprisals in case of NATO attacks.″

Despite Serbia’s strong stand against NATO troops, it appeared unlikely the ethnic Albanians would accept the peace plan without them for fear of Serb reprisals.

In an interview with the KLA’s news agency Kosova Press, the head of the ethnic Albanian delegation, Hashim Thaci, said his group insisted that any accord be ``guaranteed by NATO, led by the U.S.A.″ and include ``acceptance of the right of Albanians for a final declaration for the status of Kosovo,″ meaning independence.

Thaci, widely considered the most important figure in the KLA, said he was disappointed with the draft peace agreement because he felt it favors the Serb position.

Thaci said the draft was so heavily weighted toward the Serbs that he feared the conference sponsors were setting up the ethnic Albanians for blame if talks fail.

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