Air strikes begin as Blair says 'We must end vile oppression' (new article, same head)

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The Independent Online
NATO BOMBS and missiles smashed into targets across Yugoslavia last night as the Western alliance, after months of threats, launched a massive attack, the first in its history on a sovereign state, to force President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a peace settlement in Kosovo.

An hour after dozens of warplanes left Aviano base in north Italy at about 6pm Greenwich Mean Time, sirens wailed as four "huge" explosions were heard in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, and the city was plunged into darkness.

Minutes later explosions were reported near Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities. United States, British and other allied aircraft, including B- 2 stealth bombers, B-52s operating from Fairford, Gloucestershire, and RAF Harriers, took part, pounding targets across the country. Later last night, as Yugoslavia declared "a state of war", several great white flashes across the clear moonlit sky above Pristina, followed by four more deep heavy explosions to the south-west, heralded a second wave of attacks.

Early reports that a Nato aircraft had been shot down were denied. "All of our aircraft are accounted for," said a spokeswoman at Nato's military headquarters at Mons, Belgium.

The early targets - 20 in all, according to the Yugoslav authorities - included airports in Montenegro and at Pristina, where huge orange explosions lit up the night sky. The Batajnica air base, near Belgrade, was hit, as were an aircraft factory at Pancevo, near the capital, and the Zastava weapons plant in central Serbia, according to witnesses. Air raid sirens blared over Belgrade for the first time since the Second World War.

The start of the offensive - inevitable after Mr Milosevic had rejected the peace deal and extended his onslaught against the ethnic Albanian majority in the province - was first announced in Brussels by Javier Solana, Nato's Secretary- General. Senior alliance officials said the attacks could continue for several days.

Minutes later, the US President, Bill Clinton, went on television to warn the world that if Nato did not act now, the "full-blown" Kosovo crisis would get worse still. In Berlin, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "We are taking this action for one very simple reason... to stop Milosevic continuing his vile oppression against the Kosovan people."

The offensive was "not risk- free", Mr Clinton told Americans. "It carries risks. But the dangers of acting now are outweighed by risks of failing to act." The strikes had three objectives: to show the alliance's resolve, to deter Mr Milosevic from escalating his attacks, and "if necessary, to damage Serbia's capacity to wage war".

Earlier, George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, said the Nato attacks would have "forensic" accuracy, but last night the Yugoslav army was claiming that some women and children had been killed in one of the attacks.

A diplomatic flurry had continued almost to the last, including a phone consultation between Mr Clinton and Russia's President, Boris Yeltsin. Russia, like China, flatly opposes the Nato strikes. But the die had by then long been cast, with the firepower of the 400 planes and a dozen warships around the Adriatic about to be unleashed.

As the strikes started, Moscow shut its Nato representative office, and forced an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to protest over the raids. Mr Yeltsin said he was outraged by the assault.

In Berlin, where the crucial European summit had been eclipsed by the Kosovo showdown, the 15 European Union leaders declared that "on the threshold of the 21st century Europe could not tolerate a humanitarian catastrophe in its midst." In vain they appealed to Mr Milosevic, even as the final hours ticked away, to change his mind. "A simple telephone call is all that's needed. Even now the military action could be called off," Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, said. But the call never came.

Instead, the Belgrade authorities shut down the independent B92 radio station and confiscated vital satellite broadcasting equipment from foreign television networks. Then the Yugoslav President went on television to urge his fellow Serbs to resist "by all means" the impending attack on their sovereign territory. "What is at stake here is the freedom of the entire country; Kosovo was only the door intended to allow foreign troops to come in." The best service ordinary people could render was to go about their business as usual, Mr Milosevic said.

But in Belgrade business was anything but usual as the realisation sank in that this time air strikes were a certainty. Long queues formed at petrol stations, and panic buying was reported at many shops. The media published instructions from the city council on the food and other necessities to take to air-raid shelters, and on how to signal to rescue workers from beneath the rubble of destroyed buildings. "Be calm, do not panic, but be decisive," was the official mantra of the hour.

In Kosovo itself, where the latest month-old Serb offensive has already driven 65,000 people from their homes, the violence and the misery continued yesterday. As civilians and Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas alike waited for deliverance by Nato air power, Serb tanks kept up a two-hour artillery barrage at Blace, close to the border with Macedonia, setting houses ablaze in several nearby villages.

Meanwhile in Belgrade, a number of journalists were arrested. Serbian police detained cameramen trying to film the strikes from the roof of a hotel in the capital. "The view of what is going on is now pretty restricted. A short time ago the Serbian police went up on to the roof of the hotel where most of the journalists are staying and arrested a number of cameramen who've been trying to take pictures," one witness said. The police were "stationing themselves on every floor and every corridor".