Milosevic Tests the Ultimatum

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia: This is a job for Dick Holbrooke -- or NATO bombers. Yugoslav president and Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic stretched the U.S.' Kosovo ultimatum to the breaking point late Tuesday by ruling out a NATO ground force in his country. After meeting with U.S. envoy Christopher Hill -- who was bearing news that the ethnic Albanian rebels appeared ready to deal -- Milosevic released a statement saying, "Our negative stand about the presence of foreign troops is not only the attitude of the leadership, but also of all citizens in our country." Bluster? Definitely. Bluff? Madeleine Albright certainly hopes so -- because she's made the U.S. position very clear, and did so again earlier Tuesday: Serbs kill the deal, bombs. And "no NATO force," she said, "is a deal-breaker from our perspective."

Special Report Milosevic knows that NATO knows that sending in ground troops, however unpleasant (and risky), is strategically preferable to air strikes -- bombers over Kosovo would have little efficacy as peacekeepers. So as the Saturday deadline nears for the ongoing negotiations in Paris, it's time for Milosevic to squeeze the mediators for all he can get before giving in. If he doesn't, then NATO will have to send in the bombs, as promised. Much death and destruction will ensue, with little risk for the 2,200 U.S. Marines waiting in the Mediterranean for a go-ahead. But that's been Kosovo all along -- it's why the U.S. is willing to risk its troops in the first place -- and it won't look much like progress.