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Author(s) of the publication: Andrei Zolotov

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Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin was to leave Friday for talks in Belgrade with Slobodan Milosevic, though the search for a political solution was complicated by a UN war crimes tribunal's indictment of the Yugoslav leader and by NATO's intensified airstrikes.

Despite Chernomyrdin's warning in a piece published Thursday in The Washington Post that Russia may pull out of the negotiating process if the NATO bombings did not stop soon, he appeared to be determined to push ahead.

Chernomyrdin's trip to Belgrade, initially scheduled for Thursday, was delayed twice when his talks in Moscow with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott continued most of the day Thursday after a marathon session Wednesday.

No statement was issued when the talks broke up. Chernomyrdin's spokesman, Valentin Sergeyev, told reporters that the talks were to resume at a still undetermined date and place.

"Perhaps the only thing on which the parties to the trilateral negotiations showed full unanimity was their desire to minimize information for the press," Sergeyev said.

It was unclear whether Chernomyrdin would carry any new proposals to Belgrade.

Ahtisaari, the European Union's point man, and Talbott left Thursday evening for Bonn to meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schrзder. Germany currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

In a joint news conference with Ahtisaari, Schrзder said diplomacy was making progress and he was "more hopeful than I have ever been'' that an agreement could be reached, The Associated Press reported.

The UN war crimes tribunal confirmed Thursday that it has indicted Milosevic and four other top officials on charges of crimes against humanity in the brutal expulsion of 750,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

Many have expressed concern that the indictment would make it more difficult for Western officials to hold talks with Milosevic. But Schrзder signaled that talks could continue with the Yugoslav government.

"I would like to say very clearly that the partner for talks is the Belgrade government,'' he said. "Whom we talk to specifically there is something to be decided by those who are doing the talking.''

Ahtisaari said he favors talking not only to the Belgrade government but also to the Serbian opposition about peace terms for Kosovo.

The indictment of Milosevic, welcomed by U.S. President Bill Clinton, drew sharp criticism from Russia and cast a shadow over the talks in Moscow.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the indictments were "politically motivated" and would complicate efforts to end the crisis. But it said Russia would press on with its diplomacy, "including with the participation of President Milosevic."

The heavy NATO bombing on Thursday appeared to give credence to the claim of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who said last weekend that every time progress in peace negotiations nears, NATO intensifies its attacks.

NATO warplanes pounded targets in Belgrade and throughout the country with a record number of sorties, the alliance said Thursday. NATO said it had flown 741 sorties in the previous 24 hours of its air campaign, including 308 strike sorties and 74 others designed to suppress Serbian air defenses.

In The Washington Post article, Chernomyrdin appealed to NATO to suspend the airstrikes.

"I deem it necessary to say that, unless the raids stop soon, I shall advise Russia's president to suspend Russian participation in the negotiating process, put an end to all military-technological cooperation with the United States and Western Europe, put off the ratification of START II and use Russia's veto as the United Nations debates a resolution on Yugoslavia," Chernomyrdin wrote. He also said U.S.-Russian relations had been rolled back "several decades."

Although many threatening voices have been raised in Russia since the airstrikes were unleashed March 24, Chernomyrdin is the West's favorite. He is seen as the face of moderation on the Yugoslav crisis and his mediation efforts have won wide praise from Western leaders.

Earlier this week, The New York Times published an article by Clinton that outlined U.S. policy in the Balkans. The U.S. president said that it "strengthens, not weakens our [the U.S.] fundamental interest in a long-term, positive relationship with Russia."

Adding to the insult, Clinton went on to say that "Russia is now helping to work out a way for Belgrade to meet our conditions."

Chernomyrdin responded that Russia's effort was to mediate, not to sell NATO's demands to Milosevic. NATO's aim to force Yugoslavia's capitulation and establish a protectorate in Kosovo runs counter to Russia's stance, he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church announced Thursday that a high-level international ecumenical delegation was to fly Thursday night to Belgrade to meet with Milosevic. It is to present a yet unspecified peace initiative, which was worked out at a conference of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant representatives in Vienna, Austria, on May 18.

But the Vatican pulled out at the last minute, which left only Orthodox and Protestant representatives on board. A source in the Moscow Patriarchate said the Vatican appears to have changed its mind because it favors a partition of Kosovo, while preservation of Yugoslavia's integrity is at the core of the joint peace initiative.



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