The six nations that make up the Contact Group on Kosovo have demanded that the parties to the conflict attend a peace conference in Rambouillet, France this weekend. They have backed up that summons with the threat of NATO military intervention in the troubled province if the combatants fail to stop the fighting. In so doing, the Contact Group has raised the stakes. The call for a Dayton-style peace conference puts the credibility of the international community on the line. It is a gamble, but one that is likely to pay off.

The outlines of the deal that the Contact Group has proposed have emerged. All fighting would stop and all hostages would be released. The Serb police and military presence in the region would be reduced to minimal levels. Kosovo would receive substantial autonomy for a period of three years, a president and separate representation in the Yugoslav Federation. International peacekeepers, reportedly including U.S. forces, would be deployed to police the agreement. According to British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, “only 20 percent” of the terms are negotiable.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will complain about dealing with “terrorists” and stall until the last possible moment, but ultimately he has every reason to go to Rambouillet. For all his tough talk, Mr. Milosevic can live with this deal. He cannot end the fighting. He can wreak havoc and his forces can commit unspeakable atrocities, but the Kosovo guerrillas will not be beaten by conventional arms. The Contact Group proposal will keep Kosovo within the Yugoslav Federation. More importantly, it will allow him to save face: Mr. Milosevic can claim that the West forced his hand and that he has maintained the integrity of the federation. And, as in the Dayton negotiations, the Yugoslav president will have re-established himself as the Balkan deal maker, indispensable to any real settlement in the region.

The real problem is on the other side of the table. Moderate Kosovars, led by Mr. Ibrahim Rugova, twice elected president of the Kosovo government that the Serbs never recognized, has signaled his willingness to accept the Contact Group’s plan. More radical groups, such as the Kosovo Liberation Army, have thus far refused to accept anything less than complete independence. And their targets are no longer just Serbs: In recent months, they have waged a campaign of terror and intimidation against moderates willing to make a deal with the government in Belgrade.

But they, too, have reason to go to France. KLA forces may be better armed than ever and capable of inflicting severe damage on the Yugoslav Army, but ultimately they cannot claim the independence they seek. Moreover, their willingness to court Serb retribution could turn public opinion — and the Kosovars they claim to represent — against them. The West could mount a concerted effort to cut off the funds and flow of arms that have sustained the KLA forces. Recent statements about an unwillingness to join the “rush” to a peace settlement notwithstanding, the Yugoslav’s readiness to compromise will oblige the KLA to follow Mr. Milosevic to the table.

But that is only part of the problem. The Kosovars will have to agree on a power-sharing proposal among themselves. Apart from the differences in opinion, there is a more fundamental question about the Kosovar hardliners: Who actually leads them? A number of individuals claim to speak for the KLA, but that is not the same as being able to enforce discipline among a guerrilla fighting force.

The fighting must stop, however. The KLA attacks merely draw counterattacks by the Yugoslav military and they are becoming increasingly savage. The massacre at Racak two weeks ago, in which 45 lives were lost, has been followed by other atrocities. In recent days, there has been a spate of bombings in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. In all, the 11 months of fighting have claimed over 2,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands of Kosovars from their homes.

NATO has the ability to force the parties to the table. Sadly, it must be prepared to do just that if necessary. Even Mr. Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, concedes that there is a need to use force when all other means have failed. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana says he has the authorization to proceed with military strikes if the parties fail to comply with the Contact Group’s demands. This power should not be used lightly, but in this case, a failure to act will only prolong the indignities and the suffering.

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