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So far, NATO no closer to goals

NATO steps up air attacks in a race against killing and eviction in

After a week of bombing, the aim is unchanged: Stop Serbia's onslaught against Kosovo's secession-seeking ethnic Albanians and force it to accept a United States-drafted peace plan. The means: more bombing.

But with NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia intensifying amid fresh reports of atrocities, and new waves of terror-stricken refugees, the allies' goals seem as elusive as ever.

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Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains defiant, and US officials acknowledge they failed to foresee the scale of the Serbian retribution that is driving tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians into adjacent states in Europe's worst humanitarian calamity since World War II.

"It's beyond a pace and intensity that we expected," says a senior US official of the reported executions and ethnic cleansing. "It's a calculated campaign to remove by killing or forced expulsion the population of Kosovo."

As a result, the US and its allies are now racing to save the remains of Kosovo's 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority and their own strategy. But there are grave questions as to whether they can succeed as the crisis spins further and faster out of control.

"We will take this day-by-day," says the senior US official. "At some point, there will be a reassessment diplomatically how far we can go with [Mr. Milosevic]."

For now, the allies vow to stick to their original strategy, saying it is beginning to have a major impact. On March 30, NATO moved from mostly night raids to around-the-clock strikes, calling in A-10 ground-attack jets and more bombers against Serbian forces in Kosovo.

The intensification came as Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov met Milosevic in Belgrade in a bid to find a diplomatic solution. The US welcomed the talks. But it insists the airstrikes would persist until Milosevic accepts a cease-fire, pulls his forces from Kosovo, and agrees to the "framework" of the so-called Rambouillet peace plan.

But other experts, including some US officials, say the crisis has deteriorated so rapidly that those aims may no longer be realistic.

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Some believe Milosevic has out-maneuvered NATO, and it is just a matter of time before President Clinton seeks the political cover he needs to halt the bombing.

"The war is over," asserts an experienced diplomatic observer of the region. "Psychologically, we will go on bombing to make a point. But in Serbian terms, the harder we hit, the greater the victory."

Others reply that the only option left for Clinton is to reconsider his refusal to deploy ground troops. "We have intervened and we must now decide what actions are necessary to succeed," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a potential Republican presidential contender. "We are in it. Now we must win it."

Only a ground operation, he and others say, can restore to their homes the estimated 250,000 ethnic Albanians who have fled to Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, the tiny pro-West republic that with Serbia comprises the remnants of Yugoslavia.

Unless the expulsions end, experts warn, Kosovo's Albanians could become a stateless people in the heart of Europe, destabilizing their host governments and plunging the region into greater insecurity. "If we allow this here, what happens ... three to five years from now?" asks a NATO military source. "It's something that has to be addressed here for the entire region."

While Clinton continues discounting ground troops because of low public support, allied officials admit there are enormous hurdles to compelling Milosevic to accept the Rambouillet plan. "I can't imagine going back and pulling the text out," says a European diplomat. "How can you ask either side to make concessions at this point?"

To begin with, Milosevic's defiance of NATO has won him the acclaim of his people, who revere Kosovo as their historic heartland. The prospect of joining the ranks of Serbian leaders who have defied great powers in the past could make Milosevic even more intransigent.

Indeed, he now seems bent on pursuing a decades-old dream of Serbian ultranationalists to resolve the "Albanian question" by the forced expulsion of Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians. If that is so, he no longer has any motive to accept the Rambouillet plan, which is designed to end an uprising by ethnic Albanian rebels. The plan denies them independence, but calls for restoring the autonomy the province lost in 1989 and the deployment of a NATO-led peace-keeping force.

Furthermore, the prospect of being indicted by The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal could also stiffen Milosevic's resistance.

Washington and its allies have launched a campaign of vilification against Milosevic. They accuse him of orchestrating Serbian "genocidal attacks" of executions, arson, and pillage, and penning 20,000 ethnic Albanians inside a "concentration camp" for use as human shields.

NATO said on March 30 that it had unconfirmed reports that large numbers of refugees were being shelled in a valley southeast of Pristina, the capital.

It is also doubtful that the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army will remain wedded to the Rambouillet accord as its fighters seek to avenge the destruction that has swept some 150,000 of their people from major cities and countless villages in the past five days alone.

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