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Consequences in Kosovo

The fighting may be tailing off in Kosovo, but the conflict won't be resolved until Serbia restores to that province's ethnic Albanian majority substantial, lasting autonomy.

That's the outcome most likely to result in peace. But the path toward it is mined with Serb ultranationalism and growing Albanian radicalism. After months of violence, neither side is readily drawn to appeals for compromise.

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As with so much Balkans agony, most of the responsibility for this situation rests with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Belgrade's master manipulator - whether of his fellow Serbs' emotions or the West's wavering political will - has orchestrated the Kosovo crisis with one goal in mind: to get what he wants. That is, to brutally stamp out the Kosovar independence movement without provoking a threatened NATO military response.

Western threats are familiar pieces on Milosevic's chess board. His gambit appears to be to thrust toward the precipice, then put on a show of compliance with the international will. Thus the current withdrawal of some of his police and Army units from Kosovo. But they leave behind a trail of burned and gutted villages, refugees, freshly laid mine fields, and murder. And a number of brigades are still in position to terrorize Kosovo's civilians - as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made clear in his report to the Security Council this week.

The Council should throw its weight behind the NATO threat of force. But permanent members Russia and China adamantly oppose this. So force, if it comes, may have the approval of only the US and its NATO allies, rather than the larger world body. That's not ideal. But it's adequate. Milosevic has to know - and should know, after multiple talks with US envoy Richard Holbrooke and Mr. Annan's strongly worded report - that international intervention is close.

Such intervention is clearly justified by the scope of the humanitarian tragedy in Kosovo and by the probability that continued Serb-Albanian conflict there could spark wider, cross-border violence.

Milosevic could switch tactics, accelerating the troop pullback, allowing international aid agencies to operate without hindrance, and starting real negotiations with Kosovo's Albanians - the steps demanded by a Sept. 23 Security Council resolution.

If that happens, fine. But it will have to be straightforward and prompt - not Milosevic's usual style. If he'd rather drag things out, bluster about the West's "criminal acts," and issue his own threats, the consequences should be unequivocal.

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