Weighing Options vs. Serbs

Airstrikes by NATO may just fuel more ethnic fighting in Kosovo, analysts say.

While the United States and Europe prepare for possible airstrikes against Serb forces, diplomats in the province of Kosovo are unsure that bombing will stem the conflict.

Following the discoveries of at least three massacres of ethnic Albanians last week, differences of opinion have widened between some officials in Washington and diplomats on the ground in Kosovo.

A decision on military intervention could come this week, with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expected to offer an assessment today. US Secretary of Defense William Cohen has warned of an allied airstrike within two weeks.

But in Kosovo, diplomats say airstrikes now could lead to more interethnic violence between Serb forces and the ethnic Albanians, a 90 percent majority calling for independence.

They say the only way to prevent more violence after an air raid would be to implement a massive ground force - which for now is considered an unlikely commitment.

In the US, such influential foreign policy figures as Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia have repeatedly said airstrikes alone would only aggravate the situation on the ground. And yesterday the London Sunday Telegraph reported Britain was training a rapid-reaction force for land operations in Kosovo.

But British defense officials downplayed the report. And the use of ground troops could mean a long-term commitment: In neighboring Bosnia, some 33,000 NATO troops - of about 60,000 deployed after the 1995 Dayton agreement - remain in a peacekeeping role.

Analysts say a bombing mission would need to be extensive, first hitting air-defense targets throughout Serbia and possibly Montenegro, the second republic of Yugoslavia. Only then could the allies target military and police bases in Kosovo.

Russia has condemned any unsanctioned NATO attack on Yugoslavia as a "rude violation" of the UN charter.

A Western diplomat in Kosovo says an air assault may hurt ethnic Albanians. "Who do you think the Serbs would blame for airstrikes?" he says.

The diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, warned that bombing could provoke the Serbian police forces to unleash more violent attacks on ethnic Albanians, 50,000 of whom have been displaced from their homes and are living in the open. The diplomat also points out that an air raid would likely be preceded by an evacuation of international monitors.

Reacting to threats of intervention, Serbian nationalist leaders have told their people not to back down. "If we cannot grab all their [NATO] planes, we can grab those within our reach, like various [human rights groups]," said Radical Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj.

Nevertheless, Albanians in Kosovo seem to overwhelmingly favor military intervention. A weekend headline in the Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore says: "NATO Air: Just Do It."

LAST week, international monitors and journalists saw evidence from three separate incidents that Serb forces executed and mutilated ethnic Albanians. At least 600 have died in Kosovo since the crisis began in late February, but the death toll could be as high as 1,532, the number given by the ethnic Albanian Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Kosovo. The province has a population of about 2 million.

A second diplomat says airstrikes should have come two months ago, before the Serb offensive that killed hundreds and burned thousands of homes.

The second diplomat also stressed the importance of thorough investigations of the alleged massacres before any conclusions were drawn. He warned of high levels of deception on both sides and raised the possibility that both Serbian and Albanian claims of atrocities had been fabricated.

Serbian officials also claim that their people have been massacred, although their allegations have received less attention from international monitors and press.

"I don't believe the Albanians any more than I believe the [Serbian] police," says the second diplomat.

Diplomats and aid workers have called for neutral forensic experts to investigate allegations on both sides.

Also clouding the possibility of airstrikes is the apparent withdrawal of troops by the Yugoslav Army and the special police forces late last week - as demanded by the UN. International monitors say many troops and military vehicles have returned to barracks, though it's unclear what remains in the field.

One diplomat, however, says Army and police forces are used interchangeably, meaning the Serbs could continue their campaign after an Army withdrawal.

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