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Can West deal with 'war criminal'?

A UN tribunal indicts Milosevic and four others for atrocities.

The war-crimes indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has left the United States and its NATO allies in a potentially serious bind as they pursue long-shot diplomatic efforts to end the Kosovo conflict and avoid a ground invasion.

Mr. Milosevic could decide that the indictment released Thursday by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal has left him nothing to lose by maintaining an uncompromising stand on Kosovo. The Western allies could also find it difficult to justify making concessions to the first sitting head of state ever formally charged with crimes against humanity.

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Furthermore, the US and its NATO partners could be hard pressed to defend continuing negotiations at all with the Serbian leader. And with his senior-most lieutenants also charged on Thursday with atrocities against Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians, it is not clear to whom the allies could turn in Belgrade as interlocutors of sufficient influence.

"Who will sign a peace agreement now?" says a political opposition leader in Yugoslavia. "The mixing of justice and politics is the wrong way to do anything. The tribunal will lose dignity from this."

"I do not approve of this initiative. It does not serve peace," declared French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, reflecting the deep concern over the impact of the indictments. Russia, which is mediating between NATO and Belgrade, denounced the charges as "politically motivated." A spokesman for President Yeltsin insisted that "one man must be involved in any attempt to resolve the complicated situation in the Balkans, and that man is the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic."

For its part, the Clinton administration sought to walk a cautious middle line between the international court, of which it is the prime supporter, and its desire to find a diplomatic settlement that averts a NATO ground invasion of Kosovo.

President Clinton welcomed the indictment of Milosevic and his co-defendants on charges of overseeing the Serbian murder, plunder, and mass expulsions of nearly half of Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians since NATO began bombing March 24.

But US officials also say the indictment does not preclude further contacts or negotiations with Milosevic if they lead to his acceptance of NATO's terms for an end to its air campaign. These include a withdrawal of all Serbian police and troops from Kosovo and the return of all ethnic Albanian deportees under the protection of a well-armed international peacekeeping force with NATO troops at its core.

Western officials concede they are unsure of how the indictments will affect Russian-mediated peace efforts. "People are waiting to see," says one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We don't know where this is going to shake down."

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More pressure

Clearly, Mr. Clinton's hope is that the indictments, coupled with intensifying NATO airstrikes, will put more pressure on Milosevic to accept the alliance's demands for a settlement. "It [the indictment] will make clear to the Serbian people who is responsible for this conduct and who is prolonging it. I call on all nations to support the tribunal's decision and to cooperate with its efforts to seek justice," Clinton said in a statement during a vacation in Yulee, Fla.

Alliance leaders also stressed that the indictments would not alter their strategy of trying to bomb Milosevic into concessions. A French government spokeswoman in Paris said French President Jacques Chirac and Clinton agreed in a telephone conversation that "this is not the moment to change strategy."

"We believe that making it clear to the people of Serbia that it is their leadership that has brought his crisis upon them will help build support for ending the crisis on NATO's terms," says State Department spokesman James Rubin.

Milosevic, however, has shown no sign of compromising on his refusals to accept well-armed NATO-led peacekeepers or withdraw all his soldiers and police from Kosovo. To do so could be politically fatal for him amid the massive devastation and civilian casualties from NATO bombs that his people have endured.

Milosevic rode to power in 1987 on the Serbs' fierce devotion to Kosovo, which they cherish as their historic heartland. Two years later, as the Serbian nationalist wave he unleashed began to tear former Yugoslavia apart, he replaced Kosovo's autonomy with iron-fisted repression of its ethnic Albanians.

Details of indictment

Named with Milosevic in the groundbreaking 41-page indictment were Milan Miluntinovic, president of Serbia; Deputy Yugoslav Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, who oversees Kosovo policy; Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Aragoljub Ojdanic; and Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic.

"There is a credible basis to believe that these accused are criminally responsible for the deportation of 740,000 Kosovo Albanians and for the murder of 340 Kosovo Albanians," the war-crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, told a news conference in The Hague. "We are extremely focused on bringing all of the investigations we have to the highest level of responsibility."

Denied access to Kosovo by Milosevic, tribunal investigators have spent weeks amassing testimonies of alleged war crimes from ethnic Albanian deportees now living in camps in Albania and Macedonia. They have also asked the US and other governments to share evidence they have collected through their own interviews as well as aerial reconnaissance photographs and other intelligence data.

It is doubtful that Milosevic and his co-defendants will ever stand trial. Belgrade rejects the tribunal's legitimacy and for years has refused to turn over Serbian suspects indicted for atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia.

In an interview early this year, Zoran Knezevic, the Yugoslav Minister of Justice, called the war-crimes tribunal a "farce." "As a rule, these institutions are political, not legal," he said. "It serves mainly the interests of the US."

With the issuing of international arrest warrants, the Serbian leader and his lieutenants are effectively blocked from ever leaving their country.

"This country will become a fortress," says an independent analyst in Belgrade. "The borders will be sealed, the population will be mobilized, the real fight will begin."

The first measure of the impact of the indictments on the peace efforts could come with talks expected today in Belgrade between Milosevic and Russian special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin. The meeting was to follow three days of negotiations in Moscow between Mr. Chernomyrdin, US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, representing the European community.

The talks, however, appeared to have made little headway towards a settlement when they broke off Thursday, with the sticking point NATO's rejection of Russia's demand for an immediate halt to airstrikes. In a commentary published in the Washington Post, Chernomyrdin threatened that if the "the attacks don't stop soon," he will recommend that Mr. Yeltsin end Russian mediation, stops military cooperation with the US and European Union, suspends Russian ratification of a critical nuclear arms control treaty, and veto any NATO-backed UN resolution on the Kosovo crisis.

*Balkans correspondent Justin Brown contributed from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

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