Last week, it looked as if the West had the upper hand in the ongoing military and diplomatic campaigns against Yugoslavia. Meetings with Russian officials had yielded agreement on terms for an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Mr. Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate Albanian Kosovar leader, had been released from house arrest and had traveled to Italy to meet with Western representatives in what seemed like a bid to forge terms for an eventual settlement. At the same time, U.S. congressional representatives were holding talks with Serb businessmen reportedly close to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. All suggested that the Yugoslav leadership was ready to explore any avenue to sue for peace.

Last weekend, the balance of forces seems to have been reversed. Concerns about the number of civilian casualties have been growing; the argument that NATO airstrikes worsened the ethnic cleansing has also won supporters. In Germany, in particular, the coalition government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has come under increasing strain. The Greens — junior partners in the government and the party of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer — last week held a conference on the crisis, and a majority of its regional groupings voted against the military campaign.

The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade further complicates the diplomatic dynamic. NATO planners have admitted that the building was indeed targeted, but they claim that the maps they used were outdated; the intended target was the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement, which was located until two years ago in the same building. Cynics ask if the “mistake” was deliberate, since the Chinese are suspected of sharing intelligence with the Yugoslavs.

Even before the mistake, the Chinese — with their own restive ethnic groups — were troubled by the precedent set by the airstrikes; now their opposition will be even more forceful. Beijing’s immediate response has been to break off all military and human-rights talks with the United States. It is unlikely that the move will unduly influence U.S. President Bill Clinton’s policy, but it does raise the diplomatic stakes for Washington.

Mr. Milosevic is never one to waste an opportunity, so his announcement earlier this week of a partial withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo was to be expected. The offer, which called for a reduction of Yugoslav forces in the province to prewar levels once a peace agreement is signed, was dismissed by NATO and Western officials as “propaganda.” In contrast, Russian officials called the offer “a serious step in the right direction.” Mr. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the special Russian envoy for the Balkans, met Tuesday with Chinese officials to see if they could break the diplomatic stalemate — no doubt on terms more to Mr. Milosevic’s liking. The Yugoslav offer of a withdrawal provides them the diplomatic fig leaf they need.

A withdrawal is an important step — the mere offer of a withdrawal is not. Moreover, and more importantly, it is only a first step. Until the ethnic Albanian Kosovars are free to return to their homes and live without fear, a withdrawal of Yugoslav forces is an empty gesture. A U.S. State Department report released last week estimates that all but 10 percent of Kosovo’s 1.7 million ethnic Albanians have been forced from their homes, and more than 700,000 of them are now living in exile. More than 300 villages and 300 other residential areas have been looted and burned. In addition, it details summary executions, systematically organized rape and other war crimes.

In these circumstances, Mr. Milosevic’s proposal of a partial withdrawal in return for an end to the air campaign is, in reality, little more than official sanction for ethnic cleansing. The offer should be refused. NATO must demand a complete withdrawal and a return of the refugees.

Unfortunately, that is not as simple as it seems. Working out the sequence by which a withdrawal will be carried out will necessitate a pause in the bombing. Yugoslav troops cannot be easily removed from the province, since roads and bridges have been destroyed. Moving en masse would make the convoys an easy target and invite airstrikes. The key then is securing Belgrade’s agreement to all of NATO’s terms before calling a halt to the bombing campaign. Anything less renders the military action meaningless. Worse, it makes the West complicit in Mr. Milosevic’s war against the Kosovars.

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