Blair to approve Kosovo troops

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TONY BLAIR will meet senior Cabinet ministers today to approve plans for thousands of British troops and tank units to be deployed in Kosovo if Nato moves to attack Serbian installations.

The move was echoed in Belgrade where Yugoslavia's Supreme Defence Council said yesterday that the country would defend itself by "all means available" against Nato air attacks, the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported.

The council, headed by President Slobodan Milosevic, met after he held a surprise meeting with Russian envoys, - foreign minister Igor Ivanov and defence minister Igor Sergeyev - and the Russian government warned that Nato attacks could "undermine the whole system of current international relations". Russia which shares bonds of religion and joint Slavic roots is the Serbs' main international ally.

Tanjug reported that Yugoslavia's defense minister and top general had also attended the Defence Council meeting , and that Ivanov handed Milosevic a message from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. A statement from Mr Milosevic's office said any Nato strike would be an "act of aggression".

British Ministers hope the rapid reaction ground troops, probably from the Royal Marines, would not become involved in fighting the Serbs, but would police any ceasefire in Kosovo. A rapid reaction force is reported to be undergoing specialist training to operate in the rugged terrain of Kosovo to protect villagers from reprisals and massacres by Serb forces.

The marines' role after air strikes would be peacekeeping, similar to the peacekeeping force in Bosnia, but the British soldiers would be prepared to engage Serb troops directly.

Their deployment in Kosovo remains some way off, and diplomatic efforts to persuade President Milosevic to end the repression of ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo will gain momentum today.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan delivers a key report today on whether Serbia has already complied with Security Council demands, but the early indications are that it will not provide the green light to begin bombing.

Today's Cabinet meeting comes as the Cabinet's overseas and defence committee will give formal backing from Britain for Nato's planned air strikes against Serbian forces.

George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday: "If Slobodan Milosevic is involved in a genuine ceasefire, and not just some cat-and- mouse tactic than he's been involved in before, then there is a prospect of a political settlement on the ground. Clearly there would have to be Nato troops to enforce it or to keep the peace."

Mr Robertson said the Yugoslav president was "moving with such speed" in pulling back his troops in Kosovo to their barracks only because he recognised that Nato meant business. "This time he can't get off the hook with just a cosmetic withdrawal," he said. He said Nato was looking for a response bwithin two weeks.

n Some 500 people, including human rights activist Bianca Jagger and actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, marched through London to demand that Mr Milosevic be indicted as a war criminal and tried in an international court yesterday.