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For West, a Balkan Boomerang?

Kosovo deal may strengthen Milosevic, setting up potential for future power plays.

A week after US diplomats struck a deal with Slobodan Milosevic to end the violence in Kosovo, the plan seems riddled with questions and, if anything, likely to strengthen the Yugoslav president's authoritarian rule.

New crackdowns by Mr. Milosevic have already brought about student demonstrations in the capital, Belgrade. In Kosovo, fighting continued over the weekend in spite of US envoy Richard Holbrooke's plan.

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"The problem with this agreement," says a Western analyst in Belgrade, "is that it doesn't confront the primary instigator in all this: Slobodan Milosevic."

Mr. Milosevic's track record on war-crimes investigations also worries those who hope he will cooperate with the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He still refuses to cooperate on the extradition of Bosnian Serbs indicted for war crimes there.

For some analysts, that raises the prospect that the world community has not finished dealing with a showdown that could yet ignite wider conflict in Europe.

In negotiations early this month to avoid NATO airstrikes against his country, Milosevic agreed to allow a 2,000-person team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to verify withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. It was hardly a major concession - other Serbian politicians had been calling for the OSCE for months.

The main object of the verification mission is to allow the return of displaced Albanians to their homes before winter. Also under the plan, NATO is allowed to fly unarmed planes over the region for surveillance.

And, in the most difficult part of the agreement to implement, Milosevic promised to work toward restoring autonomy to the overwhelming ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo - a solution that diplomats long expected and one that will leave neither side satisfied - especially ethnic Albanians, many of whom still press for full independence.

Although NATO says it will continue to hold the threat of airstrikes over Milosevic for another week, there are signs that the idea of military intervention has been shelved. The American Embassy, for example, scaled down to a skeleton crew last week in anticipation of airstrikes. It was reportedly running at close-to-full capacity yesterday.

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In Kosovo, despite the fact that Serbian troops are leaving the region, fighting continues, according to the American-led Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission.

The observer mission blames some of the aggression on the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which has pledged to continue its fight for independence.

The KLA once claimed to control 40 percent of the territory in Kosovo, but it was severely beaten by a Serbian offensive that drove some 270,000 Albanians from their homes. It remains to be seen whether the guerrillas can regain their strength.

Diplomats say the KLA was indirectly consulted during the talks between Milosevic and Mr. Holbrooke, but it remains an unknown and critical element in the future of Kosovo. There are already indications it will escalate attacks as the Serbs pull out.

A renewal of large-scale fighting could provoke confrontation between the US and Russia, which opposed NATO moves against the Serbs. It also sets up the involvement of NATO members - and bitter rivals - Greece and Turkey, often described as the first dominoes in the spread of a Balkan war.

This weekend the KLA rejected the peace plan and its leaders complained that they had not been adequately included in talks. "We appreciated the threat of the international community," the KLA said in a statement. "But we do not agree with the Milosevic-Holbrooke accord, which only provided space for Milosevic to continue the war, genocide, and massacres."

If the fighting does continue, the 2,000 unarmed OSCE observers on the ground will be in a precarious position; they could be used as human shields or hostages. Or, they could be used by the Serbs to prevent the KLA from regaining ground, reinforcing Serb military gains of the past few months and saving the government the estimated $2 million-per-day cost of fighting a war in Kosovo.

An advance OSCE team has already arrived in Belgrade and is expected to be in Kosovo soon. "Of course there's a lot of concern for them," says a diplomat in Kosovo. "And from what we've seen so far they have serious problems with organization."

In Belgrade, tension is also flaring in the wake of the Holbrooke-Milosevic pact. The Serbian government, in an apparent attempt to consolidate its power while threatened with airstrikes, shut down two independent daily newspapers, Dnevni Telegraf and Danas. Earlier they closed the popular student-run Radio Index.

Vojislav Seselj, the deputy prime minister and Radical Party leader, said late last week he would push for a measure to permanently ban independent media, as well as broadcasts of foreign news services like the BBC and Voice of America.

"We crushed the terrorist organizations in Kosovo...." Mr. Seselj said. "Now we will ban foreign broadcasts until the government changes - and your hair will turn gray before that happens."

In response to the media crackdown, which was backed by Milosevic, students have begun small daily protests. This week they are expected to announce a general platform that should attract more demonstrators.

They say they are fighting a difficult battle - with a demoralized populace and a repressive leader who just gets stronger. Two years ago, they held massive demonstrations that captured the attention of the world but failed to topple the government.

"At the moment I'm not optimistic," says one of the student leaders, Ivan Marovic. "It's a battle between David and Goliath. But we won't give up. We'll keep fighting for what is right."

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