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Inside the Kosovo peace talks

A bleaker picture emerges than official assessments of how the talksnear Paris are proceeding.

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It was like classic good cop, bad cop.

As he and his fellow mediators faced their ethnic Albanian interlocutors, Russian diplomat Boris Mayorsky put his foot down. They would not convey a demand to the Serbian delegation for an immediate cease-fire, he said, according to sources close to the Kosovo peace talks here.

Intervening before tempers flared, Christopher Hill, the American ambassador to Macedonia, and Austrian envoy Wolfgang Petritsch, representing the European Union (EU), agreed to relay the demand, the sources say.

The exchange, which reportedly occurred Feb. 8 on the second day of the negotiations, offers a glimpse into the complex and tension-fraught effort by the United States, the EU, and Russia to prevent almost a year of fighting in Kosovo from bursting into all-out war that could destabilize the region.

In their first briefing for journalists, the negotiators said Feb. 9 the talks were difficult, but "moving ahead." The sides, they said, have begun picking through, line by line, word by word, a draft three-year interim plan to replace Serbia's decade-long iron-fisted rule of Kosovo with autonomy for its ethnic Albanian majority of 2 million.

"By the end, we will have a settlement that works," Mr. Hill said with optimism. "People will understand what their lives will be like in Kosovo, and everyone will feel comfortable in Kosovo." He said both sides "really are serious."

The mediators refused to discuss specifics of the talks at the Chateau de Rambouillet in line with a news blackout imposed to prevent disclosures that might derail the intricate negotiations.

The only way to obtain information is in circumspect cellular telephone calls - undoubtedly monitored by French intelligence - into the palace, or to people on the outside who are in contact with those locked up in the snow-dusted French presidential retreat. Hill said such leaks were not "a big problem"; Mr. Mayorsky called them "very unhelpful" but "facts of life."

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