The United States is scrambling to contain escalating ethnic bloodshed in Kosovo, the mostly Albanian province of Yugoslavia that Serbs regard as the cradle of their religion and culture.
The US, charge some Balkans experts, may have inadvertantly contributed to a Serb crackdown by its recent statements and actions.
The unprecedented unrest that began last weekend and continued yesterday in Kosovo has revived fears that repression of its independence-seeking ethnic Albanians could trigger an all-out war that could engulf the region.
Ironically, the unrest comes as the US is making major headway in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia "could seem like a tea party compared to what could happen in Kosovo," warns Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, head of the Albanian caucus in Congress.
A new Balkan conflict would be a huge blow to US efforts to boost East Europe as part of a strategy to end frictions that have historically set Europe aflame. To avert such a setback, the Clinton administration could be forced to make good on a threat to intervene militarily in Kosovo.
Such a move would further strain the overworked American armed forces and trigger massive opposition in Congress, where majority Republicans are already incensed over the cost of the US peacekeeping force in Bosnia.
But with its Balkan peace efforts and European security strategy at stake, the Clinton administration this week renewed for the first time in years former President Bush's 1991 "Christmas warning" that US troops will intervene if the Serbs use massive force against Kosovo's 1.9 million ethnic Albanians.
"US policy has not changed," asserts Robert Gelbard, special US envoy to former Yugoslavia. "We simply will not brook any renewal of violence."
For now, however, the US is trying other means to cool tensions that have risen dramatically since the slaughter of at least 25 ethnic Albanians last weekend by Serbian police.
The attacks followed the killing of four Serbian officers by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a separatist group that emerged 19 months ago after a year of political deadlock.
Reports of unrest persisted Thursday as British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook arrived in Belgrade with a stern warning for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to rein in his security forces.
Ethnic Albanian leaders said Serb police and troops, responding to a KLA attack on a police station, shelled and stormed villages in the same area where last weekend's deaths occurred.
While branding the KLA a "terrorist" organization and rejecting independence for Kosovo, the US is holding Mr. Milosevic responsible for the worsening crisis because of his repressive rule of the province and refusal to negotiate with ethnic Albanian leaders.
Ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslims, outnumber Kosovo's Christian Orthodox Serbs by a 9-to-1 margin. They have demanded independence since Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, fired tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from state jobs, and imposed police rule that has seen the widespread use of arbitrary arrests, torture, show trials, and killings.
Serbs cherish Kosovo as the centuries-old cradle of their faith and culture. Milosevic has exploited that attachment in fanning the Serbian nationalist zeal that brought him to power and ignited the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.
The US opposes independence for Kosovo, but says it should be granted a wide degree of self-rule.
In the wake of last weekend's unrest, the US is mulling over punitive measures to force Milosevic to compromise on his refusal to negotiate on Kosovo, Mr. Gelbard says.
The steps are to be discussed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a European tour that begins today, and with her British, Russian, Canadian, and French counterparts at an emergency meeting Monday in London of the Contact Group on former Yugoslavia.
US officials also reiterate that an "outer wall" of economic sanctions slapped on Belgrade in 1992 for igniting the war in Bosnia will remain in place until Milosevic moves to resolve the Kosovo issue.
But even as the Clinton administration seeks to ease tensions, many experts say it shares some blame for the worsening crisis.
They contend that it should have made Kosovo part of the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Instead, the US bowed to Milosevic's refusal to "internationalize" the issue, radicalizing ethnic Albanians who had been pursuing nonviolent protests espoused by moderate leaders in hope of winning US support for their cause.
Critics also charge that Washington became preoccupied with implementing the Dayton accords and ignored growing violence in Kosovo, where the KLA has claimed more than 50 attacks on Serbs and Albanians loyal to Belgrade since last year.
Finally, they say, Milosevic may have seen as a "green light" for last weekend's police crackdown comments by Gelbard branding the KLA a terrorist group and his reassertion of US opposition to an independent Kosovo.
During a visit to Belgrade last week, Gelbard also announced an easing of the 1992 sanctions.
"Gelbard's concessions to Milosevic and characterization of the KLA as Albanian terrorists have emboldened the Serbs," contends Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat and Balkan analyst with Freedom House, a US human rights group based in Washington.
Gelbard rejects those charges. He says that he warned Milosevic publicly and privately against cracking down in Kosovo after the US monitored a buildup of Serbian troops and police in recent weeks.
"You will see some very serious action by the United States and our close allies," promises Gelbard. "The United States government is seriously focused on these issues."