Albright to see EU, NATO, discuss Yugoslavia

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) Tension in and around Kosovo will be a top priority item for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NATO and European Union officials during a series of meetings in Brussels on Friday.

No clear picture has emerged during Albright's nine-day trip to Europe of how the Clinton administration, which backed NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces a year ago, will act if violence simmering on the line between Kosovo province and the rest of Serbia blows up into a new conflict.

"We are watching the situation very closely," a U.S. official said, echoing words of NATO's military chief, U.S. General Wesley Clark, though he was talking about the situation in Montenegro which is also giving cause for concern.

Worrying the officials were a blockade of Montenegro's border by Serbian police, arms finds which suggested Serb and Albanian illegal activity in Kosovo's boundary region and a build-up of forces on President Slobodan Milosevic's side of that area.


Albright, who meets Clark, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and EU officials in Brussels before returning to Washington, dodged the question when asked whether NATO-led peacekeepers should intervene to defend ethnic Albanians who have come under pressure in areas under Milosevic's control.

While saying extremists on both the Albanian and Serb sides are to blame for the tensions, she has repeatedly said that the only government stoking them is the one in Belgrade.

A series of clashes just outside Kosovo in Serbia proper has prompted some diplomats to see similarities with the pattern of violence that spurred NATO to intervene last March.

Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, is also facing problems as its pro-Western President Milo Djukanovic told Albright when he met her in Sarajevo on Thursday.

He said after the meeting that the West was willing to help in the event of aggression from Yugoslav rulers in Belgrade but gave no details. So far, the United States and Europe have offered financial assistance including food aid.

Albright, who left for the Serb half of Bosnia immediately after the meeting, told reporters beforehand that she was concerned about the security of the whole region and supported Montenegro's bid for a democracy within Yugoslavia, adding: "Hopefully, at some stage, the rest of it will be democratic."

The U.S. official said the situation would be discussed at all of Friday's meetings, "Everybody's concerned," he said.

He would not be drawn on whether one possible explanation for the renewed tension was that Milosevic was trying to create an excuse to cancel elections which are supposed to be held this year. "I'm sure it's on people's minds," he said.

While offering financial support in return for reforms and privatisation such as that carried out by Bosnian Serbs in their half of Bosnia, Albright's message has been for opponents of Milosevic to stop fighting, for ethnic Albanians to stop killing Serbs in revenge in Kosovo and for political leaders to reform.

In frank comments about the state of Serbia's opposition, which recently failed to agree an anti-Milosevic protest plan, she said: "It's important to have an opposition leader, not four of them that disagree with each other."

A U.S. official said she was responding to the pessimism of her audience, a group of independent journalists in the Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka who told her they did not see how the opposition could sort itself out.

The West slapped a fuel embargo on Belgrade for its role in conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and had hopes that discontent with Milosevic's rule this winter would touch off widespread protests which would remove him from power.

Albright said people in Serbia had to act, saying: "Somehow there has to be a critical mass and a call for revolt."

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