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Regional Outlook : Buried Balkan Tension Rumbling to Surface : Outside world's actions are too little, too late to keep the ethnic conflict in Bosnia from spreading, observers fear.


PELINCE, Macedonia — American and Scandinavian troops peer out across the scruffy landscape along this most unstable European fault line, armed with little more than hope in their mission to prevent a southward spread of the Balkan conflict.

The international community's latest approach to the seething and intractable Balkan war focuses on symbolic deterrence and a face-saving policy of containment.

Fear of a Vietnam-style quagmire has dissuaded Washington and its European allies from militarily challenging Serb and Croat gunmen wreaking havoc in Bosnia-Herzegovina and repressing their ethnic minorities.

Instead, the European Community and the United Nations have attempted to politically wall off the worst battlegrounds and hope that the nationalists who are killing, raping and plundering their way to victory will be sated by their Bosnian conquest.

But from the rekindling Serbian-Croatian conflict in the disputed Krajina region to an incubating clash between Greeks and Albanians, the Balkans are a boiling caldron of unresolved territorial disputes and political intrigues that are more likely to be fueled than contained by the outside world's inaction.

Rather than deterring a spread of the conflict from its current Bosnian venue, new U.N. troops deployed to guard designated safe areas in Bosnia and potential flash points like this one on the Serbian-Macedonian border are more likely to become spectators to an ever-widening Balkan war.

International mediators overseeing negotiations in Geneva have been pressuring the Bosnian government to give in to a plan that would partition the republic among its three primary ethnic groups, which the predominantly Muslim government considers a prelude to the erasure of Bosnia from the map of Europe.

The United States and its NATO allies convened in Brussels Monday to again consider the possibility of intervening militarily around Sarajevo, but none of the measures under consideration are likely to restore Bosnia to its prewar structure or bring peace to the shattered republic.

Even if the international community has decided to write off Bosnia--a move Sarajevo officials condemn as unconscionable--containment of that disaster would have no significant effect on the root cause of the Balkan turmoil.

"Like the origin of the conflict, its solution is in Belgrade. If you want stability, you have to get rid of (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic and change the nature of the regime in Belgrade," said George Kenney, the former State Department official who oversaw Yugoslavia until he quit in protest of the West's Balkan policy last August.

Carving up Bosnia as a means of providing Milosevic with another chunk of territory for the Greater Serbia he is building will only encourage extremists elsewhere in the Balkans to use the reviled tactics the Serbs have found successful, Kenney said, predicting that "ethnic cleansing" will be the wave of the future.

"If the aggressive nationalists in Bosnia get their way, other aggressive nationalists will want to emulate them, and you've got radical Albanians, radical Macedonians, radical Greeks and so on. They all want territorial expansion, and there is no way to accommodate all of them, so some of them are going to resort to throwing around bombs. I'd say there is about a 100% chance of the conflict spreading if we just wash our hands of Bosnia," warned the former diplomat who now works as an analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

His view that the region is poised for another escalation in the killing and massive uprooting is widely shared among Balkan experts familiar with the numerous pressures building up independently of the Bosnian crisis.

"The barbarians have won. The world has to accept the fact that its failure to intervene when it was possible to do so at a much lower level of violence has had the predictable results," said Bogdan Denic, a City University of New York professor of political sociology and one of the few Serbs who still spends his summers on Croatia's Adriatic Sea coast.

"In reaction to fears of a Vietnam syndrome, we have decided on an Attila the Hun approach to foreign policy. We don't intervene unless we can massively destroy the target and achieve a clear, short-term victory," said Denic, a naturalized U.S. citizen. "The problem is that none of those conditions are meetable in Yugoslavia, yet the conflict and the dangers of it spreading persist."

He accuses European Community mediator Lord Owen and his former U.N. counterpart, Cyrus R. Vance, of ceding the moral high ground to the armed Serbian and Croatian nationalist forces in Bosnia by capitulating to their pursuit of ethnic borders.

"If the international community wants to change borders and respect the use of force, then this war will go on and on," warned Vesna Pesic, a prominent Serbian opposition figure.

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