Blair flies to US for ground war talks

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS TONY BLAIR began crucial talks with President Bill Clinton last night, an uneasy and divided Nato began to move towards acknowledgement that it will have to send in ground troops to force a settlement of the Kosovo crisis.

In a sign of the growing pressure for decisive results after the modest achievements of four weeks of bombing, Mr Blair brought forward his arrival in the US yesterday, to fit in a private dinner with Mr Clinton. This will be followed by further talks at the White House this morning. First on the agenda will be the if-and-when of using ground troops.

The meeting coincided with a host of other pointers that Nato is dusting off an option ever more loudly urged in the US Congress, but one resisted by member governments.

Last night, the first US Apache helicopters, with their vaunted anti- tank capabilities, arrived in Albania. At the same time, on Yugoslavia's northern flank, Slovakia gave formal permission for the Allies to move soldiers and equipment through its territory, enabling Nato to move a land army from the Czech Republic to Hungary, the sole member-country bordering Yugoslavia. Theoretically, Nato gains the ability to threaten not so much Kosovo as Serbia in its entirety. The agreement with Slovakia is a sign of Nato's determination to remind President Slobodan Milosevic that anything is possible.

At almost the same time it emerged in Washington that General Wesley Clark, the alliance's supreme military commander, wants the Pentagon to prepare an updated assessment of what ground forces would be required in Kosovo.

The previous calculation had been that 200,000 would be needed to take control of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia - implying an invasion from Hungary - and 70,000 if the target was Kosovo alone. But with an estimated 43,000 Yugoslav troops and security forces in the province, now well dug- in, that latter figure may be on the low side.

But Pentagon officials, like their political masters, insist a decision to deploy ground forces is no closer. As Mr Blair said in a Russian television interview yesterday, the formal position had not changed: "We have always pointed out the difficulties of having some land force invasion against an ... undiminished Serb military machine."

Nor is any decision likely at the three-day summit, starting tomorrow, transformed by the crisis from a festival to celebrate Nato's 50th anniversary into a council of war between 19 partners with differing views on the wisdom of a ground campaign. Nothing would serve Mr Milosevic better than a public row when the alliance is trying to show its unity of purpose.

The most likely eventual outcome is a blurred one, where Nato sends ground troops into a "semi-permissive environment". Serb forces would still be in Kosovo, but heavily weakened by incessant Nato bombing and pounding by the Apaches and other low-level attack weapons.

At that point Nato soldiers, perhaps as part of an international force, would move in under a settlement laid out in a Security Council resolution. This would not require the consent of President Milosevic. But it runs straight into the obstacle of a near-certain veto from Russia, which demands a ceasefire and a solution to which both sides agree.

Further reports, pages 4-7

Parliament, page 8

Robert Fisk,

Review, page 5