War In The Balkans: Fifty days of war. The bombing and the rhetoric go on. But still there is no end in sight to Kosovo's trail of misery

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The Independent Online
FIFTY DAYS into the war that was conceived to stop fascism in its tracks, a stream of frightened, wretched Albanians, with their possessions piled high on old wagons, continued to pour across the high mountain passes from Kosovo to the Albanian border pass of Morini yesterday.

In Brussels, Nato's spokesmen bluster that Serbia is beaten and Slobodan Milosevic's military machine "degraded", at the same time admitting the Yugoslav leader is stepping up his campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

There is an unmistakable whiff of panic and confusion in the West's councils of war. Tony Blair attacks the TV media for succumbing to "refugee fatigue", while the Tories - spying an obvious gap between rhetoric and reality - attack the conduct of the war with ever greater boldness.

And while the alliance twists in the wind, the agony of the refugees gets worse. Yesterday it dawned both on the poorly administered UN refugee body UNHCR, and on the host countries taking in refugees, that the exiled Kosovars, all 750,000 of them, will spend a Balkan winter under canvas or in exile.

A hideously overcrowded, disease-prone and politically violent "Gaza Strip" of refugee camps is already growing up along the frontier in Albania and Macedonia. It is destined to subject both front-line states to years of chronic political instability.

Diplomatically, without a single foreign soldier setting foot in Kosovo, the West is embroiled in what it feared most a Vietnam-style quagmire. The US and British embassies are under siege in China in scenes reminiscent of the 1967 Cultural Revolution and Britain's high-minded foreign policy has been tarred with the old brush of "imperialism" and cries of double standards. Suddenly Russia, from being on its back as a beaten former superpower, finds itself arbitrating on issues of war and peace in Europe.

But even worse from the Government's point of view, public opinion at home is wobbling, less so here perhaps than in Germany and Italy, where coalitions may yet fall.

This war was started with the express aim of forcing the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic on to the defensive. Never again, said our leaders reared on the postwar rhetoric about the Holocaust - never again, would the West endure the spectacle of watching Serbia's bullying soldiers trampling over their neighbours as they did for so long in Bosnia.

Instead the West finds itself in the undignified position of hanging on Mr Milosevic's every word and grasping at straws in the vain hope that he will blink first, looking at every turn for an opportunity to disengage itself from the deepening mess.

If there is one person who has emerged stronger from the whole campaign in his own fiefdom it is Mr Milosevic. His puny opponents at home have been swept away in a torrent of patriotic indignation over the foreigners' bombs. Perhaps he will end up losing Kosovo (though it doesn't look like that) but he will certainly be in charge of Serbia for the first few years of the new millennium, perhaps still dangling the hope of allowing the million or so Kosovars before Europe's hopeful gaze.

Nato's leaders sound increasingly defensive and - after the Chinese embassy bomb - worried about the next calamity that will be inadvertently unleashed by their own fighter jets. Meanwhile, the alliance's soldiers flex their muscles and polish their weapons in Albania and Macedonia, absolutely impotent to help the Albanians over the border, all talk of ground intervention now forgotten. The alliance still insists that an air campaign alone can bring Mr Milosevic to his senses and force him to "reverse" ethnic cleansing and accept the basic principles of the Rambouillet peace deal on Kosovo. As if to prove the point that it had not been deflected from its task by the outcry over the bombing of the Chinese embassy on Friday, Monday night was one of the alliance's "busiest" nights, with over 600 flights over Serbia and Kosovo.

Every day, Nato's spokesman Jamie Shea says the alliance remains resolved that Serbia must accept its five basic points - the verifiable withdrawal of all Serb forces, the return of all refugees, the acceptance of an international peace force, unfettered access to Kosovo for aid groups and negotiations on the future status of Kosovo.

But the facts on the ground are totally different from day one of the war. It is now thought that only 10 per cent of Kosovo's 1.8 million Albanians remain in their homes in the province. They are now equal in number to the province's Serbs. Milosevic's job is "basically done", Ivo Daalder, a former top national security aide to President Clinton, told the Washington Post yesterday.

And for all the talk of "degrading" Milosevic's war machine, US intelligence estimates that Yugoslav paramilitary police and army are still operating throughout the province, even flying helicopter gunship missions.

We are reduced to observing the heroic efforts of the international war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour as she struggles to gather evidence of crimes against humanity, while these crimes are still being committed in Kosovo and while Nato is unwilling to use the only means available to stop them - ground forces.

Mr Shea recently claimed the Kosovo rebels of the KLA had "risen like a Phoenix" after the first days of the Serb offensive in March. But where are they now? Marooned in isolated enclaves strung across the province and desperate for air drops of food and supplies.

To anyone who remembers the war in Bosnia, the word "enclave" is deeply sinister, recalling images of Srebrenica and the other Muslim towns of eastern Bosnia that were surrounded and slowly asphyxiated by the Serbs in front of the West's appalled gaze. Soon, no doubt, we will be hearing, as we did in Bosnia, of the West being "allowed" to send in send food to "safe havens" as long as Serbia's magnanimity is recognised by, for example, the disarming of the remaining men and the deportation of the women and children. And once again we will be engaged in the futile circular arguments about whether the West is in fact assisting Serbian ethnic cleansing by offering to take them out.

Yesterday Russia's Balkan envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, was in Peking, again setting the agenda for Nato and saying the bombing must stop before there can be any agreement on a UN-backed peace keeping force. Russia and the Chinese, no friends of international humanitarian are again dictating terms to the West.

But Russia is Serbia's ally and will do all it can to delay any ground invasion, whether approved or not by the UN. So what can Nato do now? It has a window of opportunity lasting perhaps two weeks before deciding whether to send a ground force into Kosovo or cave in to a fudged compromise, leaving the Kosovars in permanent exile. The arrival of of the cruel Balkan winter means that further delay in effect, spells capitulation to Milosevic.