Leading Article: Stubborn Serbs make independence for Kosovo more likel y

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YESTERDAY'S LULL in the Kosovo fighting will be met with that detached cynicism learned so painfully in Bosnia: we will believe a real truce when we see it. Winter has not frozen President Milosevic's desire to impose his will on the troubled province, nor the desire of the majority Albanian population for at least a measure of independence.

In this bout of fighting at least, troops loyal to President Milosevic are responding to sorties on behalf of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). But the Yugoslav army and police should not regard this as a convenient excuse for widespread military action.

Having removed Kosovo's rights under the Yugoslav constitution as one element in his nationalist strategy, President Milosevic has gone out of his way to inflame the feelings of its people. If the KLA is popular, it is due to Serbian intransigence; if the conflict is bitter, the Serbs have done nothing to heal its wounds.

Encouraging total independence, Western governments fear, could fracture the neighbouring republic of Macedonia and spread the conflict. But President Milosevic is doing his best to spread the conflict without our help. What will really fan the flames is to let his actions go unpunished.

Having been prepared to see the rest of Yugoslavia go to pieces in 1991 and 1992, there is no logical reason why we should not encourage Kosovo to free itself from Serbia's grasp. The province is technically part of Serbia, but that is due to Slobodan Milosevic's ruthless oppression of any sign of Albanian nationalism in the confused period covering the break- up of the old Yugoslavia. It should have at least held its status as an autonomous region. Milosevic scuppered that then, and may have to pay the price of even greater autonomy, if not independence, now.

It is clear that present policies are not working. Unarmed "observers" and "peace-keeping missions" are unable to do anything but stand by and note how many mortars and bullets are in the air at any one time. They are sitting targets for retaliation if we have to take real military action against Serbia.

They should be armed, and reinforced, or they should be removed. "Observers" are a way of showing governments are acting, without tackling the root causes of crisis: if Kosovo explodes, those nations who have so exposed their personnel may get more than they bargained for.

In the medium term, there is now no alternative to some form of autonomous Kosovo. Association with the rump Yugoslavia, though, can only be retained if Serbian policy becomes more moderate, a distant prospect while Mr Milosevic holds power in Belgrade. It would be better for all concerned if Western nations were to recognise military and diplomatic reality, instead of deluding themselves that present policies can contain Kosovo indefinitely.