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Is Milosevic game plan on schedule?

Yugoslav military moves before strikes indicate preparedness. Recent

Slobodan Milosevic has made such a swift consolidation of political and military power under two weeks of NATO airstrikes that some analysts here believe he planned all along to use the bombing for his own advantage.

If such is the case, any negotiations with the Yugoslav president to end the war may be unrealistic, since he may have no interest in reaching any settlement.

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Making a deal even harder is that events have raised expectations for ethnic Albanians of an independent Kosovo. To achieve something close to that, NATO would need to send in ground troops, dictating the terms of a settlement rather than negotiating with Mr. Milosevic. In the end, he'd be forced to grant more self-rule to Kosovo than originally envisioned - and maybe independence.

"At some point the [international community's] goal posts will start to move," Christopher Hill, the chief US negotiator on Kosovo said in a telephone interview. "We're not interested in an independent Kosovo, but at the same time the Serbs have governed in a way that shows they are not interested in keeping [Kosovo]." Serbian forces have been accused of committing massacres.

Of Milosevic's so-called ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, one Western diplomat says: "He was preparing to do it all along. It was a diabolic extension of what he's done before."

While envoys of Milosevic appeared to be negotiating for peace in France in February and March, some 40,000 Yugoslav and Serbian troops were massing in and around Kosovo. When talks were suspended March 18, and airstrikes looked inevitable, they quickly moved into Kosovo and began a spree of burning, looting, killing, and ethnic cleansing, NATO officials say, indicating that they may have been working under a premeditated strategy of ethnic cleansing. NATO airstrikes began March 24.

But Graham Elewitt, a prosecuting attorney for the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, notes that The Hague has no concrete evidence of a premeditated plan. However, "if it's part of a plan - ethnic cleansing and deportation - it's extremely relevant." Under future prosecutions, he says, that would implicate direct participation in criminal actions, rather than just in command responsibility.

Military preparedness

The Yugoslav Army showed an unusually high level of preparedness before the bombing mission. Yugoslav officials were reportedly visiting Iraq months before, discussing air-defense strategies in an unusual show of Muslim-Christian Orthodox cooperation.

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Heavy equipment, like tanks and armored personnel carriers, were well hidden, some in underground bunkers. Military buildings were abandoned well in advance. And some border areas were mined to prevent a ground attack, says Miroslav Lazarski, a Serbian military analyst.

In addition, the Serbian forces seem to have positioned themselves in Kosovo to prepare for a partition of the region. Under the partition theory, which dates back decades here, the Serbs would divide Kosovo, taking the most valuable northern parts of the region for themselves and push the ethnic Albanians to the south.

All these strategies by Milosevic appear aimed at preventing NATO ground troops from entering Kosovo, a key provision of the Rambouillet peace proposal.

NATO troops would likely sap Milosevic's Kosovo-based power sources. He has traditionally gained political power from Kosovo, both by winning parliamentary seats there - possibly by fraudulent means - and by stirring up nationalism.

Although the 10.5 million people of Yugoslavia have suffered from two weeks of airstrikes, Milosevic has only gained strength. Political opponents have been marginalized, the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army has been routed and, under a state of war, personal liberties have been greatly reduced here.

"I think Milosevic never wanted peace in Kosovo," says a political analyst in Belgrade. "Airstrikes are helping him. He is emerging as a winner - so far."

Milosevic's recent moves

Recent peace overtures by Milosevic - such as calling a unilateral cease-fire and possibly releasing three captured US soldiers - appear aimed at building division within the international community in hopes of winning some countries over to Yugoslavia's side. But NATO is not biting.

"This could be the best move up to now by the Yugoslav government," says another political analyst. "We are at war and this is propaganda. It shows the world we are a normal country capable of doing something generous."

NATO-country officials have said they detect weakness in the Yugoslav president, who has made some vague overtures for peace in the last few days. But for the most part, that is not evident here. Residents of Belgrade have begun nighttime vigils on a major bridge here, in an attempt to prevent NATO from destroying it.

"I used to be against Milosevic - until this NATO bombing happened," said Zoran Petrovic, a Serbian journalist in Belgrade. "NATO helped us, they united us. Now we're one, we're like a fist."

In other ways, however, a few cracks may be appearing, though most Serbs blame the US for their hardships - not their president. Milenko, a Belgrade taxi driver, says Milosevic will only prosper under a total collapse of the Yugoslav economy and social fabric.

"Drivers don't stop at red lights anymore," he says. "One of the state-controlled television stations showed hard-core pornography in the middle of the day. There are no rules anymore."

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