British troops on Kosovo standby

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The Independent Online
BRITISH TROOPS were put on alert last night for deployment as part of a peacekeeping force in Kosovo, in spite of the failure to reach an agreement between the warring Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

Heavy equipment was being prepared for shipment to the area, in anticipation of a ceasefire agreement being reached between the Serbs and Kosovo's Albanians, despite virtual deadlock in the peace talks underway in Rambouillet, France.

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, said he was deploying Challenger tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery and a small number of personnel.

The announcement was "prudent military contingency planning and in no way does it prejudge any decision to proceed", with the deployment of ground troops, he added.

The decision, which was given a cautious welcome in the House of Commons, involves up to 8,000 British troops and cuts the current period of alert from 72 hours. It came as the former head of the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, General Sir Michael Rose, warned against sending land forces to Kosovo.

Sir Michael said it would be better if necessary, to carry out a "train and equip" programme for the Kosovo Liberation Army so it would be better prepared for fighting Serbian forces. "I believe we may be setting a dangerous precedent in acting in the way we have done over Kosovo which, under international law, is still part of Serbia," he told the Royal United Services Institute in London. Sir Michael added: "We cannot act as the world's policeman for ever."

Despite little sign of any progress so far, the talks are likely to run into a second week, as the major powers turn the screws on the recalcitrant Serbs and Albanians to reach an interim settlement to end their differences.

The prediction was made by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, after his second visit to Rambouillet in three days, during which he urged bothsides to get down to the detailed negotiations which, according to diplomats, have yet to begin.

Mr Cook and the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, the other co-chairman of the conference, yesterday also met the President of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic. Last night Belgrade announced that it had signed up to the basic principles of the deal worked out by the six-nation Contact Group, including a ceasefire and wide autonomy for the province.

But there seems to be deadlock on Belgrade's demands that Kosovo's Albanians should do the same - and renounce the possibility of full independence.

n The bodies of 40 ethnic Albanians murdered in Racak on 15 January were finally buried yesterday. Thousandsgathered on a cold, muddy hillside above the empty villagewhere the coffins, wrapped in the Albanian flag, were laid to rest as imams said prayers for the dead. "An evil visited Racak," the crowd was told by William Walker, the leader of the monitor force in Kosovo, who was among the first to accuse the Serb security forces of carrying out a massacre. The ensuing outrage galvanised the major powers into organising the Rambouillet conference.