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Leading Article: West dithers as Kosovo burns

AGAIN AND AGAIN, it has been the same story in the Balkans. The crisis builds. And then it builds some more. The West wrings its hands and regrets there is nothing that it can do. And then, when it is far too late to take serious action - when the house is already ablaze, and the structural timbers have fallen in - somebody decides to fetch a couple of fire extinguishers off the wall.

Thus it was in Croatia. Thus it was again in Bosnia. And now, it seems, we are seeing a repeat performance in Kosovo. None can say that this is an unexpected war. On the contrary, there have been predictions of conflagration ever since the Balkan wars began seven years ago this month. Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, began his rise to power by preaching nationalism in the Albanian-majority province of Serbia. All the time, however, the politicians have been too busy, and have looked the other way.

What was just a few months ago still a smouldering conflict has now begun to blaze up in earnest. This week, several villages in western Kosovo were reportedly destroyed by Serb forces, in the latest clashes with the increasingly violent Albanian resistance in the region. Still, President Milosevic, chief author of the region's misfortunes, remains in power. And still the West seems keen to not to upset the Milosevic applecart.

Tony Blair declared yesterday that Nato would not tolerate an escalation of conflict in Kosovo. "We don't believe we could afford to have a situation of disorder spreading in that part of the world." In reality, Mr Blair's declaration is futile - all too reminiscent of the ringing declaration by the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, in spring 1991, that the US "would not permit" Yugoslavia to fall apart - a statement Mr Milosevic took as a green light for using tanks to keep the federation together.

Paddy Ashdown was right to warn yesterday of the dangers of doing too little, too late - a warning which he unsuccessfully sounded on Bosnia. Mr Blair pretended to agree. But his statement that "we are watching the situation extremely carefully" will not have Mr Milosevic trembling in his boots.

The greatest paradox of Mr Milosevic's cynical policies is that the losers include his own compatriots. Non-Serbs have suffered untold horrors in recent years. But Serbs have also been heavy losers. Their early victories turned into bitter defeats, as they were driven out of territory in Croatia that they had occupied for centuries.

Thus it may well prove to be in Kosovo, which Serbs continue to regard as their heartland, even though Serbs are fewer than 10 per cent of the population. A Kosovo unconnected to Belgrade seemed until recently unthinkable. Slobodan Milosevic is making that extraordinary possibility come closer, however. If or when the massacres get serious - so serious that the politicians can no longer "watch the situation extremely carefully", but must attempt to pour water on the blaze - then it will be too late. Crushed by Serb force, the Albanians may lose much in the short term - but it is the Serbs who will lose everything in the longer term.

The knock-on effects - involving Bulgaria, Macedonia, and perhaps Greece and Turkey - are enormous. "Watching the situation carefully" will then be remembered as the fudge that it really is. If Kosovo matters, then it matters today. Tomorrow will be too late.