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NATO: Going Easy on Serbs?

Allowing Serb forces to roll in Kosovo may be a way to force disunited rebels to come to the table under one flag.

An ongoing military offensive by Serbian forces in Kosovo has weakened the position of ethnic Albanians as the international community pushes for peace talks rather than military intervention.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last week said he would stop the crackdown on Albanian separatists, but the attacks have continued, forcing thousands to flee and putting Kosovo "on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe," according to United States diplomat Christopher Hill.

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The UN estimates 200,000 Kosovars have been displaced since fighting began in late February. Many of their homes have been torched, and despite promises by Mr. Milosevic, humanitarian-aid access has been limited. Altogether, more than 400 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, have died.

On Aug. 3, NATO reportedly moved closer to approving "contingency plans" to use aerial assaults against the Serbs, but armed intervention is still unlikely, diplomats say. International efforts, spearheaded by Mr. Hill, the US ambassador to neighboring Macedonia, remain focused on initiating talks and negotiating a cease-fire.

In fact, says a Western diplomatic source who asked not to be identified, the West may have "tacitly" allowed the Serb offensive out of frustration with the ethnic Albanians' failure to present a unified front.

In an apparent effort to gain bargaining leverage, Serbian forces have used their superior firepower to overrun several strongholds of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), including the town of Malisevo, which was once openly run by the rebels. The Serbs now control the main roads, including the crucial east-west artery connecting the provincial capital of Pristina with the city of Pec.

State-controlled media in Belgrade have proclaimed a major victory for the Serbian forces. " 'Dogs of war' in panic after effective actions of security forces in Kosovo," read an Aug. 3 headline in the state daily Politika.

Meanwhile, with much of the land they once controlled having been swallowed by the Serbs, the independence-seeking guerrillas have retreated to the hills and are engaging the Serbs with hit-and-run attacks.

The KLA, which is armed primarily with hand-held machine guns, faces pressure on all fronts. They are losing on the ground; they have alienated mainstream ethnic Albanian leaders; and the international community opposes their goal of independence and the possible formation of a "Greater Albania."

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They also have become burdened by the need to care for refugees, some of whom are the relatives of KLA fighters.

AT the same time, ethnic Albanians in Pristina grow increasingly weary of what they perceive to be ineffective diplomacy on the part of the West, and particularly the US. Shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade and Pristina has yielded few concrete results, and the fighting has only escalated.

"The general feeling is that the West wanted the Serbian offensive to happen," says Muhamet Hamiti of the pro-Albanian Kosovo Information Center. "They've been looking for this for some time. They want to pressure the weaker side - that's us - and force them to talk."

A Western diplomatic source, who asked to remain anonymous, says the West "tacitly" accepted the Serb offensive and "did nothing to stop it."

"The people who are winning now are the Serbs," says the source. "As long as they can gain another inch, they'll continue fighting. That was the idea of the last two weeks - to put the KLA in their place before negotiating. That's pretty effectively been done."

Analysts say the Milosevic offensive was taken from the Bosnian-war playbook, when the Muslim-Croatian federation launched a major offensive to gain a favorable position before the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.

The international community has been increasingly frustrated with the KLA and its lack of a political wing with which to negotiate - and may have had reason to want it weakened. The KLA has split ethnic Albanian support between the pacifist approach of de facto President Ibrahim Rugova and armed resistance.

The rebels have not yet said whether they will participate in talks with Belgrade. Mehmet Hajrizi, the president of a political party with close ties to the KLA, says the rebels will make a decision on joining a new ethnic Albanian coalition government this week.

Self-styled KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi says the rebels are "ready to fight until the final victory."

The US and other Western powers support broad autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia, but not independence. The region, where Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1, was stripped of its self-rule in 1989 by then-Serbian President Milosevic.

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