Diplomats poised for exodus as noon deadline nears

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THE UNITED STATES said it had begun preparing the evacuation of American personnel from Yugoslavia as peace talks on Kosovo approached tomorrow's deadline with no sign of progress towards an accord.

The Canadian and British embassies also said they would start withdrawing staff as the noon deadline approached.

"There is increased tension in the air," said a Canadian envoy, who added that 11 diplomats and their families would leave today but that the embassy, except for its visa section, would remain open.

An official at the British embassy said non-essential staff and families would leave today but it would also stay open. The embassy advised British nationals to leave Yugoslavia - comprising Serbia and Montenegro - immediately, "in view of the increasingly volatile situation". Some aid organisations said they planned to withdraw staff at the urging of the embassy. In Washington, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said she had told the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, in a phone call that he would be "hit hard" if Nato decided to attack. "Either he will see the Kosovo agreement as a way to deal with the Kosovo situation or he can decide he will take his country into a desperate, chaotic situation," she said at a news conference with Norway's Foreign Minister, Knut Vollebak.

Ms Albright said she had discussed with Mr Vollebak, who also heads the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the "very real possibility" that if the current stalemate continued, the OSCE's verification mission in Kosovo would have to be evacuated ahead of Nato airstrikes. She declined to say when Nato might attack: "I am not going to go into operational details."

In Macedonia, the Nato secretary-general, Javier Solana, was overseeing plans for an evacuation force to quickly remove the 1,300 OSCE monitors from Kosovo.

They went about their patrols in Kosovo yesterday but said their bags were packed back at their hotels, ready to go.