Make-or-break time for Kosovo

Ethnic Albanians must sway hard-liners. Serbs still opposed to NATO.Will fighting unravel progress?

After limited success in Kosovo peace efforts, the next few weeks may determine if all-out war erupts between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, destabilizing the Balkans and dealing a major blow to American foreign policy.

The United States and its Contact Group partners - Russia, Britain, Italy, France, and Germany - hope to lock up a final settlement when peace talks resume in France on March 15. But there are considerable hurdles that must be overcome.

Ethnic Albanian leaders vow to sign in two weeks a peace plan drafted over 17 days of negotiations outside Paris that ended Feb. 23. Their signature, however, may depend on whether they can win the backing of hard-line ethnic Albanian rebels.

It also remains doubtful that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will drop his rejection of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Serbia, one of two republics making up Yugoslavia. There are also signs that Mr. Milosevic is irate over changes to the plan that helped win the last-minute approval of the ethnic Albanian negotiators.

Adding to the uncertainty are deep divisions within the Contact Group over how to proceed if Milosevic doesn't relent. The US and Britain favor making good on a threat of NATO airstrikes, while France, Italy, and Germany are at best lukewarm; Russia vehemently objects to bombing, which it warns would seriously harm its relations with the US and its allies.

But perhaps the gravest threat to a final peace deal is a resumption of fighting between independence-seeking ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbian troops and police.

"If the fighting stops in the next two weeks, it means that the two sides are serious and we'll see implementation of the peace plan soon," says Natasa Kantic, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "If there's more fighting it means [the agreement] is finished."

As the talks at the 14th-century Chateau de Rambouillet, near Paris, were coming to a close, fighting erupted near the town of Vucitrn. International observers reported no new clashes Wednesday. But in an ominous sign, a senior NATO military official reports that Yugoslav forces, including tanks, artillery, and infantry were massing just north of Kosovo. The buildup, he says, could presage a new Serbian onslaught aimed at crushing the KLA for good.

Sandy Blythe, the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has some 1,300 unarmed monitors in the region, described the recent skirmishes as "medium level" in comparison with a year of fighting in which some 2,000 people have died.

A SPOKESMAN for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who called the situation "explosive," says 10,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the past five days. "The difference between now and last summer is that last summer people were fleeing for their lives," says Fernando Del Mundo. "Now they are being displaced because of fear."

Western officials warn that both sides are gearing up for major clashes this spring. There are deep worries that massive fighting could unleash huge refugee flows and drag in neighboring Albania and the large ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia, and perhaps even Greece and Turkey.

Such a scenario could seriously jeopardize President Clinton's efforts to bolster the security of Europe, a major initiative that will help shape his foreign-policy legacy. Those efforts include expanding NATO and giving it new responsibilities for safeguarding US and European interests, preserving the US-brokered peace accord in Bosnia, and nurturing the post-communist democracies of Eastern Europe.

A major wild card in the next three weeks will be the response of hard-line KLA commanders and their chief spokesman, Adem Demaci, to the ethnic Albanian negotiators' entreaties to support the peace plan. It would deny their demand for independence and require the KLA to disband. But Kosovo would be granted significant self-rule. And a referendum on secession could be held in three years, with the results considered at an international conference on Kosovo's future status.

Some of the ethnic Albanians' strongest supporters are concerned about the reaction of the hard-liners: Some are enjoying enormous status for the first time, and others remain wedded to a war of liberation.

"There are going to be elements out there who will want to sabotage it [the plan]," says Rep. Elliot Engel (D) of New York, co-chairman of the Congressional Albanian Causus. "I would hope that the Albanian side will ... understand that in the long run, this agreement is in their best interests."

An influential moderate KLA member says he believes enough public support can be built to ensure the plan's acceptance as long as it mandates the deployment of 28,000 NATO peacekeepers, including 4,000 Americans. "It's got to be NATO and only NATO," he says. He was responding to hints from President Milan Milutinovic of Serbia that Belgrade might agree to an international presence other than NATO to enforce the plan in Kosovo.

NATO troops would be tough for Milosevic to swallow. His authoritarian regime has thrived on international isolation and has repeatedly said "no" to NATO. By relenting, Milosevic would be giving up physical control of Kosovo, whose mythological importance to the Serbs he exploited to enhance his power and fan the nationalism that has ignited four wars since 1991.

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