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Yugoslavia has released the three U.S. soldiers captured in the first days of the NATO military campaign. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is to be thanked for winning the freedom of the three servicemen, another success for the charismatic civil-rights leader. The release of the three men is welcome, but it does not change the fundamentals of the Kosovo crisis. The government in Belgrade must withdraw its security forces from Kosovo, end the violence and ethnic cleansing and allow the Kosovars to return to their homes.

It is a mistake to read too much into the decision to release the hostages. It did not win Mr. Slobodan Milosevic any leverage in the negotiations; if anything, the servicemen were probably a liability for the Yugoslav president. Releasing them to Mr. Jackson was too crude a gesture to hold out any hope of influencing NATO thinking. Indeed, the release was followed by NATO’s decision to escalate the bombing campaign by targeting Yugoslavia’s electrical grid.

Mr. Jackson reportedly delivered a private message from Mr. Milosevic to U.S. President Bill Clinton. One U.S. official has already dismissed the gesture as “a PR stunt” — which it may well be. But after over 40 days of airstrikes — and the recent tragedies that claimed the lives of innocent civilians — the West must entertain every possible option to achieve its diplomatic objectives and end the military campaign in the Balkans. This underscores the significance of this week’s meetings between Mr. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s special Balkan envoy, and U.S. officials.

If nothing comes of that, dissenters within the Western camp may become more vocal in their opposition. French President Jacques Chirac’s planned visit to Moscow next week to talk with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Boris Yeltsin, is a hint of potential fractures within NATO.

Diplomacy must proceed in tandem with the airstrikes. But the focus must not change. Albanian Kosovars remain the true victims in this crisis and their fate remains the standard by which the West’s actions must be judged.

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