Kosovo at the Brink

Reports of attacks on civilians by government forces in the southern Serb province of Kosovo suggest ethnic cleansing again is on the mind of Slobodan Milosevic.

The Yugoslav federation president, whose only aim seems to be to stay in power by any means available, has just been dealt a setback in Montenegro, where his hand-picked candidate for president of that republic was soundly defeated. He has lost his influence among fellow Serbs in neighboring Bosnia as well.

In Kosovo, the oppressed ethnic Albanian majority grows more frustrated daily. A few months ago, the Kosovo Liberation Army numbered an estimated 400 or 500. Today, the KLA is thought to be 10,000 to 12,000 strong and growing.

The extent of attacks by Yugoslav special police forces remains unclear. The government has not allowed international observers into the area. At least 1,600 ethnic Albanian refugees have crossed into Albania. They report being shelled, fleeing, and then watching their homes being burned.

Milosevic's immediate aim may be to regain control of the border with Albania from the KLA. His ultimate goal may be to "cleanse" ethnic Albanians from at least a portion of Kosovo.

The US engineered a meeting May 15 between Milosevic and Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova, and thought it had extracted promises from Milosevic of talks toward a peaceful settlement. In exchange, economic sanctions on Serbia were lifted.

The US then invited Mr. Rugova to Washington to meet President Clinton and other top officials. But this may not have worked as expected. Rugova's influence in Kosovo has waned as rapidly as the KLA's has risen. He no longer represents the majority thinking there. And though he does not endorse violence, he does endorse the KLA's goal of full independence. The stated American position is that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, so high-level palaver with Rugova sends a conflicting signal to Kosovo.

NATO is now thinking of stationing troops on the Albanian side of the Kosovo border. But using them to squeeze off supply routes to the KLA without corresponding pressure on Milosevic invites more refugees, killings, and ethnic cleansing.

Economic sanctions on the Milosevic government need to be quickly reinstated. The Serb leader must be pressed for real progress, not stalling, in talks set to continue tomorrow.

The US and the world community may have little time left to decide what they are willing to do if Milosevic decides to pursue a summer "cleansing."

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