Aiming NATO at Serb Advance

Western leaders meet today and tomorrow to weigh use of force in Kosovo. Will they ignore the UN and Russia?

Her head covered by a scarf, an elderly ethnic Albanian who has been driven from her Kosovo home tearfully pleads for help.

"If we stay here, [the Serbs] will slaughter us," says the woman, as she crowds inside a house where 42 displaced persons have found temporary shelter.

In a rare encounter between victim and diplomat Tuesday, in the middle of what is increasingly looking like a war zone, the woman, named Tixhe, addresses Richard Miles, the top US diplomat in Yugoslavia.

"We are doing everything we can to bring about a peaceful solution [in Kosovo]," says Mr. Miles, shortly before the woman bends over and kisses his hand.

The fact that this brief meeting occurred signals genuine concern on the part of the US. But the inability of Mr. Miles to offer firm action underscores the West's difficulty stopping the latest fighting in the Balkans.

A decision on whether to militarily intervene may come soon.

The six-nation Contact Group meets in London tomorrow, along with Japan and Canada, to make what may be a benchmark decision on whether to act against the Serb advance in Kosovo.

Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow to decide whether to use troops, airstrikes, or a no-fly zone to protect Muslims in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia.

"There is a genuine concern throughout the region that if this goes unchecked, it could have much wider implications than just Kosovo," US Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

With at least hundreds dead, more than 10,000 refugees having fled into Albania, and a chorus of charges that the Serb forces are conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing, Albanians in Kosovo are pressing the US and other Western powers for more than just words of conciliation.

On Monday, the US and the European Union said they would reimpose a ban on foreign investment in Serbia, a move that could further hobble the economy of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But far more serious action - military intervention - is also gaining support in the West.

The US and Britain are drafting a United Nations Security Council resolution to allow the use of "all necessary means" to resolve the crisis.

The Security Council may vote on the measure as early as Friday, even as NATO defense ministers meet - and while the Contact Group works to get Russia in agreement. "We are still trying to work out the wording, but we have no dispute over the phrase ... 'to use all necessary means' to try to avoid ethnic cleansing and the loss of human life," President Clinton said Tuesday.

According to diplomatic sources in Kosovo, the US is considering several additional options, including NATO forces on the Albanian and Macedonian borders and covert arming of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army, which is fighting for independence for Kosovo's 1.7 million ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs there 9 to 1. There is also talk of putting peacekeeping troops on the ground in Kosovo, though that appears unlikely.

"Military intervention is easy to say, but hard to achieve," says Miles, who on Tuesday toured the western Kosovo city of Decani, where Serb forces torched more than half the houses, displacing as many as 40,000 ethnic Albanians. So far there are 53 confirmed dead from the latest attacks the western region near the Albanian border.

The tour was a small concession to Western diplomats, apparently designed by the Serbs to take political pressure off Mr. Milosevic, diplomats say.

Although the US would consider unilateral action in Kosovo, it prefers to work under the protective umbrella of the United Nations, diplomats say.

But Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power, has hesitated to take a strong stance against Serbia, its sometime ally. Mr. Clinton has said he will personally try to persuade Russian President Boris Yeltsin to take action. Mr. Yeltsin indicated this week that he will put pressure on Milosevic. This leaves a question mark over whether China will at least abstain from the Security Council vote.

THE most internationally feasible plan would be to place NATO troops on the Albanian and Macedonian borders, which would prevent the conflict from spreading into a wider war. But many Kosovar Albanians oppose that plan; it would block refugee escape routes and cut off KLA supplies.

Unilateral action by the US would be considered politically risky, especially because the international community does not support the kind of independence that the guerrillas are calling for.

Nevertheless, diplomats and legal experts say military intervention could be justified under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows military action if an internal conflict is a threat to international peace and security.

Despite the Serb offensive near Decani two weeks ago, the KLA still controls many of the villages in the western region. Yet without heavy weaponry, the KLA is no match for the Serbs.

"We're just waiting for winter," says a bare-chested Serbian policeman at a checkpoint on the main road between Pec and the provincial capital, Pristina. "We'll see what the KLA does then."

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