Next in Kosovo

NATO's errant bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade has tended to obscure other developments. Among these: Last week's G-8 statement of principles for ending the Kosovo conflict and hints from Belgrade that it may be ready to talk.

The latter included official Yugoslav announcements that the campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army had accomplished its goals, and that the refugees could now return. To back up such statements, presumably, Belgrade May 10 said it would partially withdraw troops from the ravaged province.

Meanwhile, the exodus of Kosovar refugees, many with accounts of Serb threats and atrocities, continues.

NATO capitals are right to be skeptical of the Yugoslav announcements. What's come from Slobodan Milosevic's capital to date falls far short of the alliance's core demands. A partial withdrawal of Serb forces would leave thousands of soldiers and police behind. Refugees won't go back to towns and homes (if those are still standing) patrolled by the people who brutally expelled them.

What's needed is a verifiable withdrawal of Yugoslav troops and their replacement by an international peacekeeping force. NATO countries can't be excluded from that force, as Mr. Milosevic wants, but perhaps UN involvement in its formation can be negotiated. It can't be a token force, but one, as in Bosnia, that's equipped to prevent new violence.

Another key ingredient, Kosovo's long-term political status, can be a matter for later, more extensive negotiations. The immediate business is ending the expulsion of Kosovars, and then the bombing.

A NATO bombing pause should come in tandem with a credible Yugoslav commitment to withdraw troops from Kosovo. A UN Security Council resolution could initiate this. If, however, Milosevic feels he can dig in, offering only a vague promise to pull out part of his troops, Washington, London, and other NATO capitals are committed to sustain the military pressure on him.

But "collateral damage" disasters must be avoided. The Chinese embassy tragedy graphically illustrates the dangers as planners cast a widening net for targets.

NATO shouldn't back away from its basic stand that what Milosevic has engineered in Kosovo can't be allowed to stand. But it must be flexible enough to seize such diplomatic opportunities as the G-8 formulation.

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