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The West flounders in Kosovo

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Slobodan Milosevic has backed down, we are told, either because of Russian persuasiveness or because of NATO's display of air power in the Balkan skies.

Or has he simply bought time?After meeting with President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, the Serbian leader pledged to stop "repressive acts" against civilians in the mainly Albanian province of Kosovo and seek a "diplomatic solution" to the conflict that has killed more than 300 people and sent 65,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Albania and Montenegro.

Besides promising to resume peace talks with Kosovo's leaders, Milosevic said he would provide state aid to rebuild homes destroyed by Serbian security forces and allow the return of refugees under the supervision of the Red Cross and the United Nations.

All this sounds very reasonable. And it meets most of the demands issued by the six-nation Contact Group in London last week as a condition for halting preparations for NATO air strikes. But one key demand remains unsatisfied: Milosevic refused to withdraw Serbian army and police units accused of "ethnic cleansing" until all "terrorist activity" is halted.

He has a point. Guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army have committed terrorist acts by ambushing Serbian soldiers and murdering Serbian policemen. And it can be argued that the presence of security forces is needed to protect Kosovo's Serbian minority.

The Contact Group never disputed Milosevic's right to combat a rising level of violence by the KLA. What it objected to was the massive overkill that resulted when he launched a full-scale military offensive in the province last March. Instead of chasing down a few hundred guerrillas, Serbian forces shelled entire villages, forcing thousands of civilians to flee, then burned down still-standing homes so their owners had nothing to come back to.

Peace talks arranged by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke broke down last month after only one session because Milosevic refused to withdraw his troops. That, in turn, led to mock air raids by 84 NATO warplanes over Albania and Macedonia. Operation Determined Falcon was designed to show Milosevic NATO's resolve, but it is doubtful that he was intimidated.

The Serbian strongman is much like Iraq's Saddam Hussein; in fact, one of his nicknames is "Slobo-Saddam." Remember what happened before the gulf war? While Saddam was marshaling his forces to invade Kuwait, the United States decided to send him a "strong message" by staging air exercises over some neighboring emirates. It was totally lost on a man who only understands a 2,000-pound bomb in his front yard. .

Milosevic, chief architect of the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, witnessed four years of dithering by the NATO powers before they intervened in that conflict. And Bosnia was a separate country. Kosovo is still part of Serbia, and Milosevic has every reason to suspect that NATO is not as resolute as its aerial saber-rattling would have us believe.

The Clinton administration has sent Milosevic many mixed signals. A few weeks ago National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said military intervention was "not on the table." Now Defense Secretary William Cohen says it is, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright threatens to bypass the U.N. if need be.

Milosevic has no reason to believe them. And even if he keeps his promises, Kosovo may be past the negotiating stage. Its Albanian residents want independence; the Serbs are only willing to discuss autonomy. And the West has no ideas on how to bridge the impasse.