NATO's clock ticks on Kosovo

US, allies threatened force yesterday if fighting continues. Peaceconference also being considered.

After a failed cease-fire that did little to ease tensions in Kosovo, the United States and its allies are moving aggressively along a course that could lead to airstrikes and ground troops.

The process, sped up by the killing two weeks ago of 45 ethnic Albanians who appeared to be civilians, has taken on new weight and seems far more serious than similar threats made last fall.

NATO issued an ultimatum yesterday, demanding that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdraw his forces in Kosovo to levels agreed to in the cease-fire - or face military action. The ultimatum also calls for ethnic Albanian forces in the province to cease hostilities.

Today, the six-nation contact group that monitors Balkan affairs is scheduled to meet in London. The group may urge a peace conference between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

"We have been working to quicken some political solution here and also to keep in mind what can be done through the threat of the use of force," said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Wednesday at a news conference in Cairo.

"If force becomes necessary we will need to look at that," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday. "The threat is essential."

But the international community may be plowing into unknown territory, without substantial concessions from either of the warring sides, and without a clear consensus for military intervention, should it become necessary. The Serbs, who rule Kosovo with heavy police force, and the ethnic Albanians, who are fighting for independence, seem as far apart as ever.

"This is a deadlock," says a Western diplomat. "There's a huge gap in what the two sides are willing to accept.... But we have to start looking for different pressure points to get them to participate [in talks]."

The Albanians still insist on outright independence and the Serbs refuse to stop their military campaign. The international community favors a high level of autonomy for a three-year interim period, after which a final solution would be sought.

Kosovo, considered a Serbian holy land, is inhabited by a 90 percent ethnic Albanian population. More than 2,000 people have died in a year of conflict between the Serbian forces and the KLA.

In Belgrade today, Serbian officials said they would not agree to a peace conference held outside of Yugoslavia, according to Ivica Dacic, spokesman for Mr. Milosevic's political party. Mr. Dacic said they would consider negotiations that were based on their interpretation of the October cease-fire agreement.

If force is used, it remains to be seen exactly what it would entail - and its effects on the future of Balkan stability are unclear. The Europeans have insisted that airstrikes against the Serbs would need to be followed by ground troops, and US participation is considered essential. So far Washington has balked at such a long-term commitment, but there are signs that they may warm up to the idea if a peace agreement is reached.

One downside to military intervention is that it may strengthen the rule of Milosevic - considered the root of the problems in Kosovo - by allowing him to pin to blame for Kosovo on the international community.

Another question mark is how to pressure the ethnic Albanians into accepting anything less than independence. One approach under consideration is stationing NATO troops in neighboring Albania, which would help cut off supplies to the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Another less-talked-about option is the threat of removing the international observers from the region, which would leave the Albanians at the mercy of the Serbs. The lack of unity on the ethnic Albanian side has increased the difficulty of negotiations.

This week the KLA said it would set up an ethnic Albanian government in Kosovo that would rival the existing structure headed by Ibrahim Rugova, a pacifist whose support is dwindling and who has been openly dismissed by the KLA. Furthermore, the KLA is now attempting to control the money raised by Kosovars living abroad, which previously had gone to Mr. Rugova's government. In a statement released this week, the rebels said they would be forced to make "other decisions" if their demands were not met.

On Monday, a key KLA operative in the United States said, "If NATO or anybody pressures us [to accept] autonomy, things will not go as smooth as they did in Bosnia. They [NATO troops] will get hurt in Kosovo." Any peace plan must have a referendum on independence, he says, and such a peace plan must be guaranteed by NATO. He spurned efforts by the US and its allies to bring the KLA and Rugova together.

As international officials reiterated their determination to force an agreement, fighting broke out along Kosovo's southwestern border yesterday. After heavy action near Podujevo Wednesday, in the north of Kosovo, a skirmish broke out in the western village of Bistrazin, says Sandy Blyth, a spokesman for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose unarmed observers are charged with verifying the rarely-abided-by cease fire.

The plan to call a peace conference under the threat of intervention differs from previous attempts at "shuttle diplomacy," in which it was thought that the two sides could not come together until a common ground had been established. "Maybe we needed six months to figure this out," says the diplomat. "It's tragic that so many people died in the meantime."

* Staff writer Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.

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