WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Serbia's threat to expand its campaign of "ethnic cleansing" into the former Yugoslav region of Kosovo poses the danger of igniting a regionwide conflict that could bring a major international crisis early in Bill Clinton's presidency, if not before, U.S. officials say.
"Even in the most sober assessments by Balkan observers, an explosion in Kosovo increases the probability of drawing in other states," a senior administration official said this week. "If Kosovo goes, all bets are off."
The United States has issued stern diplomatic warnings to the Serbs, but has not directly threatened military force, officials said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher warned Thursday that "there should be no doubt that the United States government would take very seriously destabilizing acts by the Serbian and Montenegran government in the Kosovo."
Serbia and Montenegro comprise the new Yugoslavia and are considered the prime instigators in the violence that has engulfed Bosnia-Herzogovia and Croatia -- neighboring regions that left the Yugoslav federation.
Elaborating, an official who follows developments in the former Yugoslavia said, "It would be a mistake for Belgrade to miscalculate the Western response in Kosovo. They've got to be very attentive to what we're saying about Kosovo."
The spread of the ethnic conflict would compound the crisis that Mr. Clinton will inherit in the depths of winter when, by international estimates, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians could perish from war, starvation and cold.
"They [Clinton administration officials] are going to get hit by the side of the head on this thing," said one expert on Eastern Europe, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's no way they could understand the depth of the morass they're about to walk into." Coupled with the humanitarian crisis, this expert said, is a "complete paralysis of the multilateral [peace] process."
Mr. Clinton did not mention the former Yugoslavia among his foreign-policy priorities during his news conference Thursday. But during the campaign, he advocated a more forceful stance than President Bush's, suggesting that Bosnians be allowed to arm themselves.
Jim Steinberg is a Rand Corp. analyst who has briefed th Center for National Policy, a Washington think-tank with close ties to the Clinton camp. He described the situation in Kosovo as "potentially very explosive."
"It requires a concerted effort by the international community" to avert fighting in Kosovo, he said. "The international community has to speak very strongly."
Kosovo, situated in the southern part of former Yugoslavia, i designated as an autonomous region within Serbia, but Serbs have controlled Kosovo with an iron hand.
Albanians comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's population, and their presence has long been a source of tension with Serbs, who consider Kosovo the cradle of their civilization.
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic swept to power on promises he would make Kosovo Serbian again -- and he did start fulfilling that pledge by abolishing the old Yugoslav Constitution, which gave the Albanians considerable autonomy.
Initial small-scale Serbian efforts at ethnic cleansing -- the process of forcefully uprooting non-Serbs -- have already caused ethnic Albanians to flee in large numbers. Should the Serbs expand into a major crackdown, Kosovo could become a "flash-point," U.S. officials agree, drawing in Yugoslavia's regional neighbors: Albania and Macedonia and perhaps Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Kosovo is bordered by Albania to the west and Macedonia to the south.
Authoritative voices in former Yugoslavia, Greece and Bulgaria are publicly debating prospects of a new Balkan war in and around Macedonia. The Macedonians, in turn, have formally asked for United Nations peacekeeping forces to be deployed on its territory.
"The spillover potential is immense," a U.S. official said. Given the close family connections between Albanians and their ethnic kin in Kosovo, a move by Serbs against ethnic Albanians would make it "impossible" for Albania not to get involved, this official said.
Macedonia, with its own Albanian minority, could quickly "unravel" and become involved, inflaming tensions with Greece, the official added. An increase in tension inside Macedonia resulted in riots a week ago that left four dead.
Such projections used to be uttered freely only by a minority of younger U.S. officials pressing for a more activist policy of containing Serbian aggression, but now are becoming shared by senior ranks.
Before or after the Jan. 20 inauguration, another senior official said, "the potential for conflict is there."
One problem with the warnings so far delivered to Mr. Milosevic is that he has escaped serious punishment for his campaign of ethnic cleansing, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one midlevel official said.
A U.S. official said Mr. Milosevic might see it in his interest to trigger a full-scale Balkan war before Jan. 20, when Mr. Clinton takes office.