Slobodan Milosevic has once again thumbed his nose at the international community and now threatens to spark yet another conflict in the Balkans.
After beginning a series of talks designed to resolve peacefully the brewing rebellion in Kosovo, the Serbian leader ratcheted up military attacks in the restive province killing hundreds of innocent civilians and forcing thousands to flee.
It's now incumbent on the United States and its allies to bring the full force of diplomatic weight to bear on the Serbian leader. Otherwise, the ethnic cleansing already begun by Mr. Milosevic's troops will burgeon into full-fledged slaughter like the genocide in Bosnia.
Serbs view Kosovo as their historic homeland, but the province's population is now 90 percent Albanian. Until 1989, it was an autonomous province of Yugoslavia. But as the Yugoslavian state disintegrated, the Serbian authorities unilaterally revoked Kosovo's autonomous status and clamped down on the Albanians.
The Belgrade regime suspended local government, fired Albanian civil servants, closed independent media, and waged a campaign of repression.
Since then, the predominantly Albanian population has become increasingly restive. With no rights or forum for free political expression, the Albanians demanded independence.
Parallel self-governing institutions were established. Frustrated by authoritarian Serbian rule, an underground insurgency emerged known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
The historic talks between Milosevic and the ethnic Albanian leader Ibraham Rugova ably brokered by US negotiators Richard C. Holbrooke and Robert Gelbard were designed as a necessary step in an ongoing diplomatic process designed to halt Serbian aggression in Kosovo. The ethnic Albanians made a good faith effort to establish a dialogue with the Belgrade regime. Mr. Rugova met Milosevic face-to-face. Follow-up talks were convened with US mediation.
But instead of engaging in continued constructive dialogue, Milosevic escalated his aggression against innocent civilians. The end result: The talks have broken down. But that doesn't mean they were ill-conceived or without merit. The negotiations proved to be a necessary maneuver that laid the foundation for a compelling course of action. Now the stage is set for a strong, concerted response from the international community.
THE talks have clearly defined the aggressor who needs to be stopped and the aggrieved who needs international support.
Rugova, the leader of the ethnic Albanians, proved his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue by engaging in the talks in good faith. He has reaffirmed his distance from the KLA, which grows more popular with every Serbian artillery attack.
Belgrade has clearly demonstrated disdain for the international community and bears full responsibility for the breakdown of negotiations.
The international community now must act upon the assurances of support given to Kosovo.
President Clinton told Albanian leaders during their visit to Washington last week that the US would not permit a repeat of Bosnia. Talks between Milosevic and Rugova wouldn't be tolerated as a smoke screen for ethnic cleansing.
International economic sanctions, suspended as a carrot to induce Milosevic to join in the negotiations, should be swiftly pressed against Yugoslavia. Yesterday's European Union ban on new investments in Serbia is a step - European companies anxious to do business in Belgrade must not profit while aggression continues against Albanians.
But there's more to be done: Serbian assets overseas should be frozen, particularly in European banks. The World Bank and other international financial institutions should reiterate their support for the "outer wall" of sanctions which bars Yugoslavia's membership in international organizations. European countries, which have sought to normalize relations with Belgrade, should now get in line with the US policy of maintaining the outer wall until all criteria are met, including a resolution of the Kosovo crisis.
To prevent its total isolation, Belgrade should withdraw all paramilitaries and recall its Army and police to the barracks. Roads leading to Pristina, the Kosovo capital, should be reopened so humanitarian supplies can be delivered.
Forensic experts should also be allowed to investigate atrocities.
And there's a role for NATO as well. It should prepare to deploy troops along Kosovo's borders to stop Serbia's pursuit of Albanians fleeing into Albania and Macedonia.
IF Belgrade does not stop its aggression, then more vigorous measures may be called for. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter would authorize all necessary measures to keep the Serbians in check.
A no-fly zone could be established to limit the use of Serbian helicopter gun ships against civilians. NATO forces could eliminate Serbian artillery and constrain tank attacks against villagers.
The US should not rule out any option. Immediate economic sanctions and a credible threat of punitive force against Serbian aggression are necessary if the constructive dialogue so carefully initiated by top American negotiators is to resume.
As demonstrated in Bosnia, US leadership is indispensable to peace and security in the Balkans.
* David L. Phillips, executive director of the International Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University, in New York, was recently in Kosovo. He accompanied Albanian leaders on their visit to the UN last week.