Ashdown fears Kosovo catastrophe

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The Independent Online
THE LIBERAL Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, warned yesterday that the international community had a maximum of "six weeks to two months" to find a solution to the war in Kosovo, where clashes between Serbs and Albanians are worsening by the day.

Following a five-day trip to the region, Mr Ashdown argued that failure to act could lead to a disastrous explosion of violence, where "the potential ramifications are huge".

His fact-finding trip included conversations with leading politicians in Albania and Macedonia, both of which border Kosovo. Mr Ashdown said the large Albanian population in Macedonia, in particular, was "increasingly radicalised".

On the Albanian-Kosovo border, Mr Ashdown watched a Serb mortar unit and heavy machine guns attacking "one farmhouse after another". He said that he saw no returning fire. He noted that the actions were in clear breach of commitments given to President Boris Yeltsin by President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Kosovo Albanians are clearly out-gunned. But they have made enormous advances, despite the lack of weapons, and small arms are in any case constantly smuggled in. Mr Ashdown described seeing one place that was "the Albanian equivalent of Safeways", with arms and ammunition, including weapons looted in last year's rioting, freely on sale. The price-tag for a Kalashnikov was said to be $10 (pounds 6).

Mr Ashdown argued that it was essential to "take steps to stop pan-Serb nationalism". Measures might include "sanctions, if you wish". But he made it clear that he believed the hanging threat of possible military action to be more effective. He noted that Serb positions shelling villages were "very open to air attack".

He argued, however, that the "danger of pan-Albanian nationalism" was also real. He said he opposed full independence - as opposed to enhanced autonomy - for Kosovo. "If independence happens, Macedonia blows up." And he suggested that the new strength of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, which now holds large swathes of territory in Kosovo, meant it would be difficult to dictate terms.