Leading Article: Nato cannot delay sending in troops to protect Kosovo

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IN LESS than a week, the war in Yugoslavia has escalated beyond Nato's initial aims. The evidence that women and children - and worryingly few men - are fleeing from Kosovo to Albania proves that the war has become a potentially genocidal conflict.

The responsibility for this falls on Slobodan Milosevic, President of Yugoslavia. He has exploited Allied air attacks to step up his policy of eviction and slaughter.

It is easy to blame Nato for this. But Mr Milosevic's campaign of terror was hotting up while negotiations were still under way with the Allies and the Kosovo Liberation Army, and there is evidence that the assault on the Kosovo Albanians began when the international observers were pulled out, before the war started.

After the recent murder of moderates, including Fehmi Agani, the main adviser to Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovar Albanians' voice of peace, Nato members must accept that Mr Milosevic has decided to keep Kosovo as part of Serbia - without its Albanian-speaking majority.

In these circumstances, Nato's policy must move beyond attempting to force Mr Milosevic to implement the Rambouillet terms. Indeed, these are already moribund. From punishing Serbian aggression in Kosovo, Nato must now act to prevent it.

This could be accomplished in two stages. First, Nato must change tactics. As well as diminishing the Serbian army's potential to fight, Nato must, in particular, stop the fighting in Kosovo. Nato will have to concentrate its force on the Serbian infantry, tanks and armoured personnel vehicles in the province. High-altitude hit-and-run bombing missions will have to be supplemented by lower- altitude attacks on infantry and vehicles. The Afghan war showed how vulnerable aircraft are at such heights. Inevitably, therefore, Nato and Western public opinion must be prepared for the sight of body bags.

Second, Nato will need to decide how this campaign is to end. It has already gone on long enough without a focused picture of the status quo post bellum. Nato should send in ground troops to establish a protectorate over Kosovo. This would not only defend the lives of the province's Albanian- speaking majority but also secure the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, so as to prevent the spread of the conflict into neighbouring states. There is already a partial precedent for this step in the shape of Nato's presence in Bosnia.

Establishing a protectorate is a painful decision for which there is little political consensus. So far, only Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats have given it their backing. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, announced in the House of Commons last week that British soldiers would move into Kosovo only with the consent of both Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Yesterday, in a Commons exchange with Mr Ashdown, Mr Blair moved towards this position, pointedly refusing to rule out the idea of a protectorate.

Establishing a protectorate will entail casualties, and not a little cost. Nonetheless, there is no other way, short of an invasion of Yugoslavia, that Nato can prevent the pogroms that occurred in Bosnia.

A protectorate would also ease the pressure on Mediterranean Nato states, including Italy and Greece. Italy's support for Nato is becoming strained with the arrival of boat-loads of refugees on its shores. The prospect of holiday resorts full of Kosovar refugees, and beaches filled with anti- aircraft batteries, is nightmarish for both the country's politicians and its tourist industry.

Nato must not dither, but resolve this crisis quickly - not least to prevent civilian casualties in Serbia proper. Mr Milosevic is leading all the citizens of Yugoslavia into a dark and frightening place; for all of their sakes Nato must swiftly bring the war to a stable conclusion.