Even as the fighting inches closer to Kosovo's capital, Pristina, the possibility of NATO intervention becomes more and more remote.
The bustling city of cafes and apartment buildings has remained virtually untouched during six months of fighting between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Serbia's southern province. But recently the calm has been broken by bursts of machine-gun fire and thuds of artillery blasts.
After sunset Serbian police flag down cars and stop the few people who walk the streets. "Did you hear that? Do you know what that was?" a Serbian policeman asks Edi, a young ethnic Albanian as he walks home just after 11 at night.
The policeman is talking about gunfire; his intention is clearly to intimidate. Early this week Serb forces moved to within a few miles of Pristina in a continued attack on the ethnic Albanian KLA, which is fighting for independence.
It was unclear whether the Serbs were met with resistance. And Serb police Aug. 25 killed three ethnic Albanian workers for the Mother Teresa charity who were taking humanitarian aid to refugees near Malisevo, according to the ethnic Albanian daily Koha Ditore.
On numerous occasions Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has said the offensive is over. But it rumbles on, clearing villages and keeping some 231,000 internal refugees on the run.
The international community continues to condemn the attacks, but threats of NATO intervention seem hollow. Last week French President Jacques Chirac reportedly said that, unless a cease-fire and new peace talks start soon, it will be difficult to avoid military intervention ordered by the UN Security Council.
But the pitfalls of military intervention outweigh the possible benefits, diplomats say. Western powers have threatened strikes at the Serbs, but with the precondition of Security Council approval. It is unlikely that Russia and China, permanent Security Council members with veto power, would approve such dramatic action. Russia, a traditional ally of Yugoslavia, had its own Kosovo in the breakaway republic of Chechnya; China has Tibet.
Tactical problems, too
Another option is a coalition airstrike without UN approval. In this scenario, a team of Western countries could bomb Serbian positions and hope the Serbs loosen their grip on the region. The problem with this approach, however, is that the attack would need to be far more extensive than popular opinion would allow.
Yugoslavia is protected by an integrated air-defense system with 20 to 30 sites throughout the country. To get to Kosovo, attackers would have to take out the entire system, targeting, among others, the republic of Montenegro, a Western ally, and Vojvodina, the northern Serbian province that has distanced itself from the aggression in Kosovo.
Finally, the West could strike Serbian positions in Kosovo with long-range missiles like the Tomahawks used by the US against terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. But only the US has such capabilities, and Yugoslavia has neither attacked American interests nor provided a haven for anti-American terrorists. There is no clear justification for US action. All of which Mr. Milosevic knows. Diplomats say there is little external pressure they can apply on the Yugoslav president.
"The incentive for Milosevic [to make peace] has to be internal," says a Western diplomatic source. Milosevic blames West Serbia's economy is crumbling as the republic slips deeper and deeper into international isolation. It barely has money to keep buses running - much less maintain a war. Still, Milosevic has thrived as the head of a pariah state, gaining support while pinning the blame on an international conspiracy.
Conflict in Kosovo may be the best boost for his political career, analysts say. With little leverage, US-led peace efforts have been slow. According to US envoy Christopher Hill, there is little desire for direct talks between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians, who are 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population.
Mr. Hill is shuttling between Pristina to Belgrade, trying to narrow the gap between two visions for Kosovo's future. "This is a little like watching a pot of water boil," says one diplomat.