Time for action

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 1998, 12:00am

Even as NATO allies meet today to authorise air strikes against Yugoslavia, a faint hope persists that military action can be averted. Having conceded six key demands to US envoy Richard Holbrooke, all that remains for Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to do is to agree to the seventh. Without an international monitoring force to check his forces have been withdrawn from the province, Mr Milosevic's assurances that he has complied with the UN resolution are worthless.

False promises and brinkmanship are his stock-in-trade. Only when his bluff is called does he fall into line with the demands of the Security Council. If he truly seeks a political solution to the Kosovo crisis and an end to the slaughter, he will welcome foreign observers to confirm the withdrawals.

If he still refuses, then NATO has little choice but to act. Intelligence reports that Yugoslav troops are digging in for the winter make air strikes virtually inevitable. With hundreds of villages put to the torch, and 250,000 ethnic Albanians forced to flee their homes, many living shelterless on mountain sides, snow and sub-zero temperatures are bound to multiply the year's death toll, unless something is done.

Around 1,500 people have been killed in the recent fighting, with women and children, the old and the helpless having been massacred. But it is still possible that Mr Milosevic will capitulate, in the days or hours before NATO launches an attack. The solution is in his hands.

The actions of Serbian troops and security police have turned Albania's guerilla force from a terrorist group with minority support into a populist army of freedom fighters. Mr Milosevic's people are losing ground with every battle, but such unpalatable facts are suppressed on home ground.

There is a risk that NATO action will enable Mr Milosevic to portray himself as a victim even to Serbs who are against him, and add fuel to the nationalistic fires which have kept him in power. But that cannot be allowed to weaken NATO's resolve. Its credibility is at stake. Threatening and doing nothing has already cost too many lives.