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War boosts hope for independent Kosovo

NATO attacks and Serb defiance rally Albanians, whose leaders mayreturn to drive for separation.

As NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia entered a second day, Western officials said their primary aim is to limit the Serbs' ability to kill or dislocate ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But some say that the airstrikes may only heighten instability in the Serbian province - and that unrest could spread elsewhere in Yugoslavia and beyond.

And if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic digs in for prolonged resistance to NATO, he will spur a renewed drive for outright independence in Kosovo, diplomats and analysts say. Ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) could be motivated by both the weakening of Yugoslav forces after airstrikes and continued attacks by the Serbs against their civilians.

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"If there are Serbian reprisals [in Kosovo], like the killing of civilians, there would be a definite raising of the stakes [for independence]," says Dukagjin Gorani, the editor of the Koha Ditore Times, an ethnic Albanian newspaper that was closed down last week by Serbian officials.

The United States and Europe do not support independence for Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian population. At peace talks earlier this month in France, ethnic Albanians agreed to autonomy for Kosovo, which Serbs regard as their holy land.

But, "if [resistance to NATO] goes on for a long time, or if Milosevic does something stupid like attack Macedonia, [a drive for independence] could happen," says a Western diplomat.

Already the KLA's leader, Hashim Thaci, called on residents of Kosovo to organize, saying, "You can't get independence only with NATO bombs," according to media reports.

An independent Kosovo could have huge repercussions throughout the Balkans. It could lead to an eventual "Greater Albania," which would swallow up the country of Albania as well as part of Macedonia, where there is a disgruntled 25 percent Albanian minority. That could inspire other dissatisfied ethnic groups into action, including the Croats and the Serbs, both of whom have claims to parts of Bosnia.

NATO airstrikes could also multiply problems in Montenegro, where officials warn they could become the next target of Milosevic. Montenegro has a two-year-old government that is increasingly distancing itself from Milosevic. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic wants the republic to open its economy to the West and implement democratic reform.

But airstrikes from the West, which hit Montenegro hard Thursday morning, put the republic in a difficult situation. NATO action may also allow Milosevic to capitalize on emergency powers to try to rope in the runaway republic.

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"If NATO somehow avoids further bombing of Montenegro and avoids civilian injuries, the peaceful policy of Mr. Djukanovic is more likely to succeed," says Radomir Sekulovic, a Montenegrin government spokesman.

"But if the bombing becomes more brutal, nobody can guarantee that the military of Milosevic will not try to overthrow our legitimate government."

Montenegro was included in the airstrikes because the Yugoslav Army has a large presence in the republic. Western officials said NATO would have to bomb Montenegro's air defense system to make a corridor into Kosovo, where most of the strikes are taking place.

As NATO forces continued their mission, there were no signs that Milosevic would relent in his defiance. State media continued to press a message that the Army would defend Yugoslavia at all costs.

Most of the airstrikes have targeted air-defense and command centers in Kosovo, but bombs also hit sites in the north, including near the capital of Belgrade and the city of Novi Sad.

The pace of panic, slow at first, picked up dramatically Thursday morning in Belgrade. When an air-raid siren went off, people in the street began running for shelter as cars whizzed through red lights.

In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, where electricity and water were shut off, violence was nearing the point of explosion. A security guard at the Koha Ditore Times was killed, and the office of the pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova was burned down, according to witnesses.

Residents of Pristina saw fire coming from Yugoslav Army barracks west of the city, and windows shook from detonations. The streets were empty except for the occasional passing of the Serbian police's blue armored personnel carriers.

Most stores were shut down Thursday, and almost all humanitarian relief agencies have left Kosovo.

* Virtyt Gacaferi contributed to this report from Pristina, Yugoslavia.

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