United States efforts to restore peace to Serbia's Kosovo Province appear to be collapsing, as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pushes a week-old offensive against ethnic Albanian civilians that has left thousands homeless and possibly hundreds dead.
"Milosevic is going for broke," warns a US official, who asked that his name not be used. US officials say the offensive involves MI-24 helicopter gunships, MiG-21 warplanes, tanks, and up to 10,000 police and Yugoslav troops, who have blasted villages with artillery, killed or driven out survivors, and torched homes.
Preliminary US estimates put deaths "in the low hundreds" in the operation, they say, adding the actual count will not be known until outside observers are allowed into the area on Kosovo's border with Albania.
For President Clinton, the escalating carnage is a serious challenge as Kosovo slides toward a full-scale war that could spill into adjacent states.
For now, the US is responding to the Serb offensive by threatening to reimpose a foreign-investment ban on Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia and Montenegro. But some US officials, European diplomats, and independent experts say pressure may be mounting on Mr. Clinton to consider US-led military intervention.
"NATO will be there to intervene ... if necessary," German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel insisted yesterday. He said action was needed to prevent "thousands, perhaps tens of thousands" of ethnic Albanians from spreading across Europe.
In 1994, Clinton embraced a Bush administration threat to use force if Mr. Milosevic unleashed ethnic cleansing to crush calls for independence by Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians, who outnumber its Serbs 9 to 1 and have endured years of repression.
But Clinton has refused to reaffirm the "Christmas warning" since Serbian police slaughtered women and children in a crackdown earlier this year on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
Instead, the US, which opposes Kosovo's independence, has flip-flopped between threatening Milosevic and offering him incentives to grant Kosovo autonomy. Last month, Clinton lifted the foreign investment ban and sent Richard Holbrooke, architect of the 1995 Bosnia peace plan, to persuade Milosevic and ethnic Albanian political leader Ibrahim Rugova to hold talks.
But even as Clinton encouraged Mr. Rugova at a White House meeting last week to pursue the talks despite a total lack of progress, Milosevic was unleashing the offensive against ethnic Albanians in Decani and villages near the border with Albania.
SOME experts say Milosevic may have read the softening of the US stance as a "green light" for the offensive. "All of this has been completely misinterpreted in Belgrade as a sign of American weakness," says a European diplomat.
US officials say they were responding to European criticism that the US was not offering Milosevic sufficient incentives to negotiate. The talks between representatives of Rugova and Milosevic are to resume today in what could be a make-or-break meeting for the US peace effort.
Clinton's refusal to reaffirm the "Christmas warning" appears to reflect disagreement within his administration over whether to intervene in Kosovo.
The Pentagon opposes expanding US military involvement in the Balkans beyond the open-ended NATO-led peacekeeping mission that put an end to Milosevic's efforts to annex Serb-held parts of Bosnia. It argues that NATO would face a costly and indefinite deployment in Kosovo.
Strained for funds, the Pentagon has rejected several proposals intended to dissuade Milosevic from cracking down in Kosovo, including deploying an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic or additional aircraft to Italy. It is also resisting a proposal for a no-fly zone over Kosovo, officials say.
There is also enormous opposition to intervention in the GOP-led Congress. Many lawmakers are angry with Clinton for extending the US deployment in Bosnia after promising it would last only a year. They also worry that US military resources and readiness are being overtaxed.
But some State Department and intelligence officials - as well as lawmakers and independent experts - argue that the US may have no choice but to lead a NATO force into Kosovo.
"There are different voices being expressed in the Pentagon as opposed to State and the CIA," say one US official. "The Pentagon is recycling a lot of the old arguments that kept us away from Bosnia for so long."
So far, Clinton has approved a NATO review of military options. The alliance last week agreed to extend a symbolic UN troop contingent in Macedonia.
But some US officials and other experts believe Milosevic is using the offensive to depopulate a "no go" zone to stop the KLA from moving in men and arms.
That may backfire. Officials say the KLA is "regrouping" in Kosovo's interior. The rebels are also expected to be inundated with new recruits and funds.