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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Kosovo Deal as Deadline Looms

RAMBOUILLET, France -- Hopes for a Kosovo peace deal appeared all but dead Friday as Serbian powerbroker Slobodan Milosevic defied international pressure to forge a deal with ethnic Albanians and avoid punishing airstrikes.

With NATO preparing to attack Serbia if no Kosovo deal is reached by noon on Saturday, the hard-line Yugoslav president refused to meet U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, who had traveled to Belgrade to make a last-ditch attempt to urge him to accept the Kosovo peace plan. That plan calls for NATO troops to enforce it, something Serbia staunchly opposes.

"It is hard to say we are encouraged by this," U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said after Hill was turned away.

Rubin said Hill had passed a message to Milosevic through his foreign minister that, "There is no way to have a halfway agreement" - that is, a political accord without provisions for a military force to back it up.

In a statement later Friday, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic said it was "insulting" that Hill arrived "unannounced" while Serb delegates were in Rambouillet.

But even before rebuffing Hill, Milosevic was adamant in rejecting foreign deployment in Kosovo. Milosevic said threats "against our country that it will be bombed if it does not allow foreign occupation of part of its territory should be a warning to the whole world and all nations and peoples who care about freedom and peace."

"We will not give away Kosovo, not even at the price of bombing," Milosevic was quoted as saying by the official Tanjug news agency.

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

In the Kosovo capital, Pristina, the province's top Serbian official declared Friday that any uninvited foreign troops here would be treated as aggressors.

"Any attempt at intrusion of foreign troops into our territory is an act of aggression," Zoran Andjelkovic said. "We will defend our territory from anybody."

The Serbian refusal of foreign troops has all but killed hopes that an agreement could be reached at the negotiations, aimed at ending the year-long conflict in Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, which is one of the two remaining republics in Yugoslavia. Some 2,000 people have died in the fighting since Serbs launched a crackdown last year against ethnic Albanian separatists seeking independence for Kosovo.

The proposed peace plan grants Kosovo virtual self-rule and calls for most Serbian security troops to withdraw from the region and the disarming of ethnic Albanian rebels. But it keeps the province within Yugoslav borders. An annex to the plan provides for up to 30,000 NATO troops, including 4,000 Americans, to implement it.

Serbian President Milan Milutinovic visited the talks Friday, telling mediators to stop pressuring Yugoslavia into accepting NATO troops and instead to focus on political matters.

The European Union's Wolfgang Petritsch, one of the three mediators, said Friday it was possible there would be no deal, and added that there will be no extension of the deadline.

There were problems with the ethnic Albanian side as well.

Hashim Thaci, a leader of the militant Kosovo Liberation Army and a member of the Kosovo Albanian delegation at the talks, criticized the "final draft" agreement presented by the Western negotiators Thursday to both sides, saying it strongly favors the Serbs.

In an interview published Friday by KLA's Kosova Press, Thaci repeated the ethnic Albanians' demands that any agreement include "acceptance of the right of Albanians" for a referendum on independence in three years. Serbia has rejected such a referendum and has refused to accept any plan that calls into question Serbia's internal or external borders.

Serbia got some support Friday from Russia, which opposes the use of force even if the deadline isn't met. In a rare act of concurrence, top Russian lawmakers stood behind President Boris Yeltsin on Friday, bolstering his warning to the United States against airstrikes on Serbia. In an effort to salvage the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was headed for Rambouillet to join the negotiations. Her arrival on Saturday, just before the noon deadline, suggested the deadline could be extended. However, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart noted the deadline has already been extended once.

"Both parties should understand that they now face the difficult choices to get a peace, to get a political settlement. And they should work over the next few hours to come to that agreement," Lockhart said Friday. "They need to understand the consequences should they decide to walk away from a peaceful political settlement."

With prospects for success dim, Western diplomats began evacuating the Yugoslav capital. Canadian, British and other European diplomats and their families headed for neighboring Hungary.

European Union nations issued warnings urging their citizens to leave Yugoslavia because of possible NATO attacks. The British, French, Austrian and German foreign ministries backed up the call with independent warnings.

U.S. officials said in Washington that planning was under way to evacuate the 130 American diplomats and dependents in Yugoslavia and to assist departures of 4,000 other Americans living there. The State Department warned U.S. citizens Friday against travel to Serbia and strongly urged Americans in that country to depart due to the possibility of military intervention.

The 1,300 workers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Kosovo were ready to pull out probably sometime between Saturday night and Monday, should talks fail, said Colonel Mike Philips, an aide to mission chief William Walker.

"The levers are in place and we are ready to pull them," Philips said. He said airstrikes could come within 96 hours if the deadline passes with no deal.

A NATO official speaking on condition of anonymity said "a considerable armada" of allied weaponry could be unleashed against Serb targets within "an extremely short period of time," if the talks fail.

If an attack were launched, the first targets would likely be Serb air defenses and radar facilities hit by Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warships.

Follow up attacks could target command centers and barracks. Alliance military planners are considering wider attack plans if initial strikes fail to sway Milosevic.

An additional 51 U.S. warplanes were to arrive over the weekend and early next week, strengthening a 220-aircraft fleet already at European bases and aboard the USS Enterprise in the Mediterranean.

A dozen F-117 stealth fighters, which can evade Serb radar, were among the freshly ordered warplanes, as well as 10 EA-6B electronic warfare planes and 29 refueling planes. Other NATO allies also have warplanes on alert in the region.

Although NATO officials said latest signs from the negotiations were not encouraging, the alliance is also preparing to rush up to 6,000 peacekeeping troops into Kosovo by next week if a last-minute agreement is found. An advance guard of French troops already in neighboring Macedonia could be in Kosovo by Sunday, if a deal is concluded by Saturday deadline, one official said. They would be quickly joined by German and Italian units.