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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, U.S. Narrow Gap on Kosovo

U.S. and Russian negotiators on Friday evening appeared to be nearing an agreement on a peacekeeping role for Russian troops in Kosovo, but a Pentagon spokesman said it was too early to claim success.

Dismissing as premature reports quoting unidentified diplomats in Brussels as saying a deal had been struck, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said: "The differences get narrower and narrower, but they have not narrowed totally."

"There is not an agreement," Bacon told journalists outside the talks in Helsinki, Finland. "We hope there will be, but there is not an agreement yet."

U.S. President Bill Clinton said at the G-8 summit in Cologne, Germany, that he expected the talks to produce an accord during the course of the day. Russian officials at the talks refused to comment.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev continued to discuss how Moscow would participate in the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo. Russian officials have demanded a sector of their own, which NATO opposes.

Bacon said the negotiations, which have lasted for more than 30 hours and now include U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, put final details into several agreements, but a final deal was still elusive.

"We believe we have been close all day long, but the devil is in the details and we are having a hard time reaching closure on some of the details," Bacon said.

He said the Russian side agreed that the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force must be an effective military force and "we are trying to find a resolution that works for the Russians and allows them to serve in Kosovo and also protects our requirements."

"The NATO countries - we are negotiating on behalf of NATO - have gone into these negotiations with several firm requirements: There has to be unity of command, there can be no Russian sector and there can be no partitioning of Kosovo."

NATO worries that giving Russia its own sector would seem to offer a haven to Serbs - to whom the Russians are seen as sympathetic - while deterring ethnic Albanian refugees from resettling there, effectively splitting the province. Kosovo has already been divided into five military zones run by U.S., British, French, German and Italian forces.

Ivanov said the sides were trying to reconcile the idea of an "area of responsibility," which NATO has offered Russia, and control of a geographical sector, which Russia wants.

Cohen, Sergeyev, Albright and Ivanov were all pressing to remove a serious irritant before the G-8 summit talks begin in Cologne this weekend.

Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin arrived in Cologne on Friday for his first appearance on the world stage, giving other leaders a chance to scrutinize Russia's latest prime minister.

Stepashin, in office for a month, is to represent Russia for first two of the three days meeting. President Boris Yeltsin was expected to arrive in Cologne on Sunday for a one-day visit, Presidential Press Service said Friday. It would be the frequently-ill president's first foreign trip since a one-day visit to Jordan for King Hussein's funeral in February.

Stepashin said that the peacekeeping effort needs to protect the Serbian minority, fearful of reprisals by ethnic Albanians returning after being driven out by Serbian forces during the war.

"There should not be two approaches where some are returning home and others are forced to leave their homes. If there is peace, peace should be for everyone," Stepashin said.

Yeltsin turned his attention Friday to Russia's role in reconstruction work in post-war Yugoslavia.

Yeltsin approved a proposal by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to involve Russian construction firms in rebuilding Yugoslavia after 78 days of NATO bombing, the presidential press office said Friday.

Luzhkov's proposal included offering assistance to Yugoslavia in rebuilding the Belgrade television tower and railway and an automobile bridge over the Danube River in the city of Novi Sad.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's Balkans envoy, said the damage caused by NATO airstrikes amounted to $100 billion. Chernomyrdin said that the money to rebuild Yugoslavia was likely to come from international financial organizations.

Clinton has ruled out reconstruction assistance from the West for Yugoslavia outside Kosovo as long as President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. Despite the dispute over the Russian peacekeeping role, the average Russians seemed to have lost interest in the Balkans in the wake of the end of the NATO bombing.

The number of people telling Public Opinion fund pollsters that they seek news about Yugoslavia several times a day dropped from 43 percent on April 3 to 23 percent on June 5. Both polls covered 1,500 people, Interfax reported.

According the poll, those blaming NATO for the conflict dropped from 63 percent in April to 49 percent in June. The number of those putting Yugoslavia at fault for the conflict crept up from 7 percent in April to 11 percent in June.