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Reacting to Serb atrocities

Even the Chinese now admit the atrocities were horrendous. Beijing, an implacable critic of NATO's bombing missions in Yugoslavia, said this week it would support a "serious investigation" into allegations the Serbs were engaged in ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo.

It's no wonder. Allied troops have uncovered evidence, and listened to enough eyewitnesses, to piece together the reign of terror that existed beneath the skies NATO fighters filled with bombs. On Tuesday, refugees in a tent city welcomed President Clinton as a conquering hero, and with good reason. While this page often was critical of the way the president waged the campaign, the need for the bombing never was in doubt. Ruthless dictators, such as Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, are fairly predictable. They equate power with violence, and they show little mercy or restraint.Consider this description from Britain's The Guardian: Allied troops discovered a hospital wing of Cappa Dom jail in Kosovo that was littered with blood-stained mattresses, each bearing a pillow with a single bullet hole. Nearby was a stack of letters from home, love letters and mementos from children. A witness told what happened.

On the night of May 21, allied bombers targeted the prison and surrounding areas. "The next morning, when the bombing stopped, the paramilitaries came for us. There were five of them, all masked. They had taken a lot of losses from the NATO bombing during the night and they were very angry. When they came it was much worse than the bombing."

They fired weapons at the prisoners for a half hour straight, killing about 80 and wounding 200.

This retaliation provided no strategic advantage. Allied forces never learned of it. It wasn't a staged event used later to propagandize the destruction caused by NATO warplanes. It was raw anger and hatred. And, while Milosevic himself was not among the killers, he alone bears responsibility for creating the atmosphere that allowed and encouraged such things to happen.

Two things must happen now. First, the United States should stick to its pledge not to rebuild Yugoslavia's damaged infrastructure until Milosevic is out of power. He must not be rewarded for his actions, nor allowed in any way to claim a victory from the war.

Second, the allies should vigorously pursue Milosevic and arrest him under the indictment issued recently at The Hague. If China has had a change of heart, perhaps the time is right to authorize a full-scale U.N. investigation into war crimes committed by Yugoslavian forces. That would send a powerful message of how the rest of the world views such things.

In the meantime, the Clinton administration should solidify and strengthen groups opposed to Milosevic, learning from the lessons learned in Iraq. There, the United States withdrew its support and left the opponents of Saddam Hussein vulnerable.

The fighting may be over, but much work remains before NATO can claim a victory.