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Leading article: Now for the ground war

VICTORY IN Kosovo is being celebrated this morning. The deal struck with Slobodan Milosevic will end the bombing and allow the process of rebuilding to begin. After 74 days of war we are back where we were at the beginning of March: at the negotiating table. That is good. This newspaper applauds both Martti Ahtisaari and Viktor Chernomyrdin for their work as go-betweens. But the war isn't over yet. Nato has created a desert, and it would be unwise to call it peace.

It would also be unwise to talk of victory. For who has gained? What has been won? The Independent on Sunday has opposed this conflict from the beginning, and we see no reason to change our view now. The war has been waged in defiance of international law. By no criterion can it be described as just. On the other hand we believe that Nato's motives were honourable. Slobodan Milosevic is a ruthless and wicked man; his policy towards the Albanians in Kosovo has been breathtakingly vicious. But the fact is that the attempt by the alliance to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the Balkans has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. The world today, furthermore, is an infinitely more dangerous place than it was on 24 March when the bombers went in.

There are some who see the Serbians as Milosevic's "willing executioners" and therefore legitimate targets of Nato's bombers. We do not. It is of course true that the alliance was scrupulous in its attempts to avoid civilian deaths - almost as scrupulous as it was in its (successful) attempts to avoid the deaths of its own airmen - but it nevertheless waged war against the civilian population of Serbia. The collateral damage was inevitable. Throughout Yugoslavia thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Millions have been terrorised - tortured by the nightly scream and roar of the raiders, deprived of warmth and light and security. Mis-targeted bombs have hit an old people's home, a gynaecological clinic, a prison, a hospital, blocks of flats, a refugee convoy, neutral embassies, a KLA post, an Albanian village and the capital of Bulgaria.

In Kosovo itself the bombs provided a smoke-screen for the death squads, accelerated massacres and precipitated the most savage phase in a long history of ethnic hatred. The land is now so wasted and stained that it is impossible to imagine Albanians and Serbs living there together in peace. Nearly a million refugees have escaped into stinking, comfortless camps, from which hopes of quickly rescuing them are bleak.

Now what? The war in Kosovo is likely to enter a new phase - a grinding, guerrilla war between the KLA and nominally unofficial Serb militias. "Peacekeepers" will get caught in the crossfire. Ethnic cleansing will almost certainly continue, edging Kosovo towards partition, in what has become the standard Balkan pattern. There is nothing to rejoice at here. Consider, meanwhile, what the peace deal actually says. Its first deficiency is that the KLA is not a party to it. The "end of violence and repression" in Kosovo cannot therefore be guaranteed. The Rambouillet accords have been effectively shredded: in diplomatic weasel-speak, the promise that they will be "fully considered" means that they will be ignored. Milosevic has succeeded in obliterating the promises he opposed: the international force is excluded from Serbia and Montenegro; the integrity of Yugoslavia is guaranteed; the prospect of independent Kosovo is scotched; there is no room for a meaningful referendum. In these circumstances, Nato's hope that the KLA will voluntarily disarm looks risible.

Moreover, no one can genuinely implement the withdrawal of all armed forces from Kosovo. The KLA will remain - probably mouthing compliance while keeping trigger- fingers busy. Serb communities will shelter fighters for the next phase. In other words, it looks as though the UN force will enter an active arena, in hostile terrain. Paramilitaries will operate out of the buffer zone and areas policed by Russia, or make sallies from Albania or under cover of returning refugees. Nato has had to surrender control of the field. The interim administration will be determined by the UN Security Council - it will have to suit Russia and China. The international force will be riven by ambiguities. The Russians will have their own command structure. Other non-Nato contingents will have the right to theirs. Nato's war aims have narrowed to clearing up its own wreckage and returning the refugees whose expulsion it helped to provoke.

It need never have come to this. If the allies had been more conciliatory at Rambouillet, Milosevic might have signed the treaty. But Nato insisted that, as well as having free access to all parts of Yugoslavia, its troops should be immune from criminal prosecution. Had that clause not been included there could have been a deal. It is true that Milosevic could by now have broken the deal, as he did the earlier peace deal last October. Then again, he may break the deal that has just been brokered by Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin.

The horrors are not over. When the peacekeeping force enters Kosovo there is no knowing what they will find. It could be that they will uncover mass graves. There may be tens of thousands of bodies waiting for them. That would still not justify the war, however. That would provide the alliance with that most miserable of all justifications: a post-war casus belli.