British warships to be used in Yugoslav oil blockade

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The Independent Online
BRITISH WARSHIPS will be deployed by Nato to impose an oil embargo on Yugoslavia in spite of growing alarm that it could lead to a flashpoint in the Kosovo conflict if Russian tankers are intercepted.

Plans for stopping oil tankers before they reach port in Montenegro are believed to include the use of Marines. The tactics are being worked on by General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, although the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, has questioned the legality of the embargo and has said it will be ignored by Russia.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, yesterday warned the Russians against attempting to break the embargo and said he had been given assurances by Mr Ivanov that Russia would not escalate the conflict. "I am sure that Russia wouldn't actually wish to get in that confrontation," Mr Cook said on BBC Breakfast With Frost.

European ministers will give legal backing to an EU-wide oil embargo today, but senior British sources at the Nato summit in Washington could offer no details about the legality of a ban on oil shipments from countries outside the European theatre.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, was expected to use a broadcast to the French people last night to support the oil embargo although he is said to be warning that any attempt to stop a ship without permission would amount to an act of war.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Anything we do will be done in accordance with international law."

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State said: "We have all avoided getting into a confrontation with the Russians. The Russians have also made it quite clear they are not going to get involved militarily with the Serbs so I think that our military are going to be looking at options and we have no desire to get into confrontation with the Russians. I believe they are increasingly seeing and exhibiting their own frustrations with Milosevic."

Although the oil ban is an extension of the conflict, Ms Albright said the public would not understand Nato bombing oil supplies at night and allowing shipments by day. British sources said the main aim was to stop privateers cashing in on the conflict by smuggling in oil supplies. There appeared to be no plans to go to the UN to seek UN sanction for the oil embargo.

Nato planning for the use of ground forces was gearing up yesterday when Nato concluded the Washington summit by bringing frontline states in the Balkans under its defensive umbrella.

A consultation forum is to be set up for the country's neighbouring the former Republic of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Slovenia and Albania, who were given assurances that Nato will respond if they are attacked.

They are likely to be used as a base for sending in ground forces, which could move in four to five weeks. The EU is also developing a stability pact with financial aid and a meeting is planned by the EU for 27 May. British sources dismissed a report that Britain is sending 40,000 troops to the area but Jamie Shea, Nato's press spokesman, confirmed the British contingent is being reinforced with more planes and men, doubling the number in the region to 16,000 troops.

Tony Blair's spokesman strongly defended weekend attacks on Serbian television transmitters. "We intend to carry on reducing Milosevic's ability to produce and prosecute war propaganda, which is intended to prolong this conflict," he said. "We are not going to shut down news stations and shoot editors. The difference is that in Serbia the media machine is part of the war machine. It is a legitimate military target."

Intense diplomatic efforts are being made to keep Russia out of the conflict. The Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Persson, is flying to Moscow today and there are reports that a Canadian minister will be going on a peace mission to Belgrade for a meeting with President Slobodan Milosevic.