Refugees Become Pawns in Kosovo Chess Game

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By turning on and off the flow of refugees into Macedonia, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic may be securing his flanks in Kosovo against a NATO ground invasion. Although as many as 600,000 ethnic Albanians are currently fleeing Serb violence inside Kosovo, only a handful crossed the Macedonian border Monday as Serb forces turned back thousands.

Macedonia's fear of being overrun with Albanians makes the flow of refugees Milosevic's most important leverage over a country that would be a key player in a ground war. "You can't mount a serious invasion of Kosovo from Albania alone because there are too few access points," says TIME Central Europe bureau chief Massimo Calabresi. "If the West ever wanted to take Kosovo by force, they'd need to use Macedonian territory -- an idea to which Macedonia remains strongly opposed." By showing that he can control the influx of refugees, Milosevic may be warning Macedonia not to buckle under Western pressure to allow further operations from its territory.

With NATO still opposed to a ground war, its strategic options may be narrowing. "After four weeks of bombing, Milosevic clearly isn't quitting, and there's no reason to see why he would quit," says Calabresi. "NATO can't take and hold Kosovo from 15,000 feet." Even backed by Apache helicopters, the Kosovo Liberation Army is unlikely to achieve that objective alone. Which leaves NATO facing the unhappy options of either escalating the war or salvaging whatever it can at the negotiating table.

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