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Leading Article: It's not too late for the West to get tough over Kosovo

THERE HAS been a horrific sense of deja vu when viewing events in Kosovo this week. Yet again, as in Bosnia a few years ago, the Serbs have massacred civilians. Yet again, correspondents stumble on the bodies of slaughtered men, women and children in the undergrowth.

Equally familiar is the continued Western dithering, where tough words lead to little action. The British government used to shrug off devastating eyewitness reports from Bosnia as "emotional reporting", which should not be allowed to influence the sober considerations of political leaders. Only after three years of war and civilian massacres did Nato finally agree on the airstrikes that finally brought the Serb bullies to their senses and made possible a kind of peace agreement for Bosnia, however flawed.

Kosovo was a war that did not need to happen. If the West had sent clear signals at an earlier stage, Serbian brute force might well not have been used. True, the subject of the far-away Serbian province, with its 90 per cent Albanian population, probably never topped the agenda of MPs' constituency surgeries. But populism need not be the only factor driving foreign policy; politicians should be capable of making decisions about major issues on the merits of the case.

Now we are again in the thick of a Balkan war which has gone through a number of stages: the warm-up in the spring, then the Albanian victories, now the bloody Serb counter-attacks. Throughout this period, the only British politician who has consistently spoken out has been Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats - he was an equally lone voice calling for tough action in Bosnia.

Mr Ashdown has been ready to confront the obvious lies of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic: he met Mr Milosevic this week, but was not seduced by him in the way that so many other Western politicians have been. But it is notable that it is the smallest of the three main parties - not the party of government, nor the main opposition - which has been outspoken on this issue. The political establishment, left and right, remains as cautious as ever. In a manner all too reminiscent of its Conservative predecessors, the Labour government recently tried to find excuses for not implementing the mildest of sanctions against the Yugoslav state airline.

This caution has been both foolish and lethal. It has allowed Serbs to kill Albanians with impunity, while continually proclaiming that peace is just around the corner. Even at this late stage, a much tougher stance by the West could still be useful.

And yet - and here is the irony - the long-term winners from the bloodshed of recent months are likely to be the Albanians, not the Serbs. It is inconceivable that the Serbs will succeed in keeping a restive Kosovo under control indefinitely. As Moscow learnt to its cost in Chechnya, military victories soon crumble when a conscript army is exposed to the undiluted anger of a local rebel force. Once upon a time (until last year), Albanians were obsessive about wanting a peaceful solution to their problems. Now, it is war or nothing.

Albanian victories will present the West with an even bigger problem than Serb brutality. The Albanians are in no mood to be conciliatory. Almost unanimously, they demand full independence for Kosovo, not just full autonomy. That, in turn, opens up nightmare prospects for yet further fragmentation of the Balkans, not least because of the large Albanian minority in neighbouring Macedonia. And this is all because Western politicians could not be bothered to intervene, when that intervention could still have been useful. The story is depressing and shameful in equal measure. And there is little sense that any lessons have been learnt.