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Commit in the Balkans

THE international community, like a bather in a cold lake, is gingerly submersing its toes and ankles in the Yugoslav crisis. The French, last to come on board diplomatically, are the first to send actual aid to devastated Sarajevo. They join (and half spur) a coalition of Bonn, Washington, and London that is, through UN Secretary- General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, slowly putting together the strategy and will to establish a humanitarian relief channel to Bosnia's capital. A UN contingent of 1,500 Ukrainian , French, and Egyptian troops will soon supplant the 1,000 Canadians who arrived at the Sarajevo airport yesterday.

A warning: The focus on Sarajevo over the past weeks should not blind anyone to the significant, brutal ethnic conflicts elsewhere in Bosnia - two-thirds of which is being held by Serb irregulars. Or to hair-trigger tensions in Croatia, where Croats want to force local Serbs out of neutral areas on the border of UN peacekeeping zones. Or, for that matter, to ethnic powder kegs in Sendjek or Kosovo, Muslim regions of Serbia. Or to isolated and vulnerable Macedonia.

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These are all daunting conflicts. All are exploitable. Already in the 12-month shooting war, 25,000 soldiers have been killed. Cease-fires are made and broken - usually when it suits the needs of the chief aggressor, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who loves playing cat and mouse with the West's leaders.

Yet it is exactly because of Balkan complexities that the US, the European Community, and the UN must make Sarajevo and Bosnia an example. The West's leaders must draw the line there - establish a humanitarian oasis and punish those who attempt to disrupt it. It is said that big powers can't bluff - one reason for slow-going in the Balkans. But it is time to commit with steady and sure resolve.

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