Balkan Agreement: War machine of the West revs up

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THE VAST, terrible beauty inherent in the rituals and machinery of warfare began to reveal itself on the wide northern plain of Macedonia yesterday. The army that was hidden away for months and ordered not to fight was preparing to move north and claim a kind of victory.

Peasant farmers swinging their scythes among the huge crimson poppies and yellow corn were deafened and swathed in dust clouds all day long as great battle tanks, troop carriers and armoured personnel carriers swept past, carrying fresh-faced young men from far off lands in Europe and America to their start points on the road north to Kosovo.

Whatever you feel about war, this was a visually impressive sight. And despite the heat and the threat of extreme violence that all this signifies, there seemed to be a taste of freshness in the air. The dirty war was all but over. Now it was time for the good part to begin.

Just 25km up the road the Serb army and its cohorts of murderers are scuttling home. In the blindingly blue sky the bombers who sometimes killed the innocent as they targeted the guilty are now flying low and slow, their weapons still loaded, but observing the retreat of the enemy rather than attacking him. The mood is upbeat.

In the camps, hundreds of thousands of refugees squeezed into small crowds to get close to the few radios and listen to the hourly bulletins. And in the streets of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, there was a feeling among a hostile population that these unwelcome invaders and the tide of suffering humanity will soon leave them in peace.

Sometime in the next 48 hours the biggest military force assembled since the Gulf War will cross the border and reclaim Kosovo in an unopposed invasion code-named Operation Agricola. Major-General Richard Dannatt, who had just flown in to command the 11,000-strong British contingent of the Nato K-For peace-keeping army, even called it D-Day. It was a lofty title, reminiscent of a rather more glorious invasion, but nobody demurred.

Everything is being orchestrated to provide the media event of the decade. We must provide the images that Western politicians hunger for: a column of tanks, artillery and heavily armed combat troops that will be nearly 70 miles long, snaking through the 12-mile long Kacanik Defile, with its 2,000ft-high sheer cliffs, before driving into the capital, Pristina.

But the image could be soured by many things. There may be no enemy to fight, but there is no doubt he has left some souvenirs of his occupation. Many soldiers and civilians could die or be maimed in the days ahead. Although the Serbs signed up to the technical agreement that specified they should reveal their scores of minefields and thousands of booby traps, General Dannatt pointed out there was a world of difference between "willingness and reality".

Every inch of the M2 road between Skopje and Pristina will be examined, and only experienced engineers will be allowed to leave the roadway. This will be of little help to the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars still hiding out in the hills and valleys, or the thousands in the camps who may follow the invading army before heading for their villages.

Then there is the matter of the Kosovo Liberation Army irregulars out in the hills. Their leaders in exile tell television interviewers that their men will not move forward from their positions as the Serbs leave. Nobody believes a word of it.

A mundane problem will be the traffic chaos as the monstrous military juggernaut rolls along the M2. The logistics wallahs are commandeering every passenger and freight train they can lay their hands on. They are even importing four locomotives by sea from England, expected in six days. They will play a vital role in carrying battle tanks, portable bridges and thousands of troops as the Nato force builds up over the coming weeks to its required strength of around 50,000 from Britain, America, France, Italy and Germany.

The task facing the British contingent is crucial. As the core of the force, it will begin restoring destroyed power systems, damaged water and sewage pipes and repairing scores of bombed bridges and roads. Hundreds of military engineers are confident they can make the heavily damaged parts of the city and the airport functional within days.

It sounds an impossible job. But they will do it. After all, they have built entire cities, albeit made of canvas and gravel, in under two days. These men of the 101 Logistic Brigade, under the command of Brigadier Tim Cross, are among the few true heroes to emerge from this tragic affair.

They built the camps at the height of the Kosovan exodus, when organisations including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees were paralysed. If necessary, they will build more cities of canvas in Kosovo to house the returning refugees.

Driving around the border area yesterday, it appeared possible that all this could end in some kind of success, that the price has been worth paying.

There were signs at theStankovic 1 camp in Macedonia that the refugees were preparing for the deliverance that seemed so long in coming. They were not packing, because most had nothing to pack, but there were large meetings, addressed by the camp leaders, and nobody is in any doubt that, as soon as the road to the north is open, they intend to go home. Some say they will go the way they came, by foot. Others say they will wait until it is safe. But home they are going, and soon.

Yesterday we witnessed a curious little cameo as a regiment of German tanks made camp just feet away from the battle laager of the British Challenger tanks. They were the Palm Tree of the 33 Panzer Grenadiers and the black rats of the 4th British Armoured Brigade. The last time these two famous units met was in 1941-42 in north Africa, when Rommel's Afrika Corps met Montgomery's Desert Rats.

Today the grandsons of yesterday's enemies find themselves comrades. As they sprawled on the grass their eyes strayed up to the towering mountain wall 25km to the north that forms the gateway to a tiny backwater province of Europe that has produced so much violence, tragedy, political chicanery and tragic farce in the past eight weeks.

Tomorrow these young men will be sleeping somewhere over those mountains. Then they will spread out over the broken landscape and make it safe for the homecoming of hundreds of thousands of people in the dangerous months ahead.