WASHINGTON — With the United States edging right up to the line of combat over Kosovo, President Clinton called on Americans on Friday to stand firm in the face of Serbian aggression and warned that if NATO fails to protect the people of the province, age-old animosities in the Balkans could ignite a war across Europe.
"Make no mistake," the president told a Washington news conference, "if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres. In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill.
"I do not believe that we ought to have thousands more people slaughtered and buried in open soccer fields before we do something," he said.
Earlier in the day in Paris, an international effort to bring peace to Kosovo, a province of Serbia, ended in frustration and failure.
In a joint statement, the co-chairmen of the peace conference, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, said the negotiations were at an impasse and "there is no purpose in extending the talks any further."
Cook and Vedrine said the conference "will not resume unless the Serbs express their acceptance of the accords." Representatives of the ethnic Albanians, who make up 90% of Kosovo's population, signed a peace agreement Thursday.
U.S. and European officials said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is unlikely to start bombing Yugoslavia before the end of next week, after an interval intended to give Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic one more chance to back down and allow NATO peacekeepers into Kosovo. Nevertheless, about 1,400 international cease-fire observers began leaving Kosovo on Friday, and U.S. and allied diplomats were being withdrawn from Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia and of Serbia, its dominant republic.
NATO military action would be intended to coerce Milosevic into signing the peace agreement or to so degrade Serbian military forces that they could not seriously threaten the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, whose territory is barely larger than Los Angeles County.
NATO has deployed 350 to 400 warplanes to the region, about half of them American. They are ready to begin bombing as soon as an order is given, Pentagon officials said.
The Pentagon dispatched three radar-jamming planes Friday. There are also six warships armed with cruise missiles off the Yugoslav coast. U.S. officials warned that NATO is planning much more than a pinprick attack.
"We have a number of options on the airstrikes, so I wouldn't look at this as a one- or two-bomb affair," said U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander. "This is likely to be as long and difficult as President Milosevic wants to make it."
With Milosevic showing no signs of backing down, Clinton declared at his news conference in the White House East Room: "I believe the threshold on their side has already been crossed.
"Only President Milosevic stands in the way of peace," he added.
In Clinton's view, the Western alliance is compelled to act--out of humanitarian concerns for the Kosovo Albanians and out of concern that ethnic warfare anywhere in the Balkan tinderbox could spread throughout the same region of southeastern Europe where tensions nearly a century ago erupted into World War I.
Painting a grim portrait of the ethnic-fueled horrors there, Clinton said of an attack in the Kosovo Albanian village of Racak in January: "Men, women and children taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were."
Yugoslav authorities say the victims were Kosovo Liberation Army fighters; the independent Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said they were unarmed civilians.
Clinton said 40,000 Serbian troops and police are deployed in and around Kosovo, and only the readiness of the United States and its allies in NATO stands "between them and countless more villages like Racak, full of people without protection, even though they have now chosen peace" by signing the pact in Paris.
"This is a conflict with no natural boundaries. It threatens our national interests. If it continues, it will push refugees across borders and draw in neighboring countries," the president said. "It will undermine the credibility of NATO on which stability in Europe and our own credibility depend."
The risk also includes war in Albania and Macedonia, Greece and Turkey--throughout a region that straddles Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Clinton said.
He added: "If we don't act, the war will spread. If it spreads, we will not be able to contain it without far greater risk and cost."
U.S. officials said Clinton would be reluctant to strike while Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov is visiting Washington next week. Russia opposes the use of force in the Balkans. Yet Clinton and others made it clear that they will not reverse course if Milosevic does not capitulate.