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EU chief backs US criticisms over Kosovo

A SENIOR European Union official yesterday fuelled a transatlantic row over the world's response to the crisis in Kosovo, saying she backed American criticism of European inaction.

Emma Bonino, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, said she "agreed" with Christopher Hill, the US envoy to Kosovo, who at the weekend said Europeans were fiddling while Kosovo burned.

Mr Hill accused Western European governments of being so absorbed in plans for a single currency that they had failed to intervene to stop the bloodshed in their backyard.

The transatlantic divisions worsened as the Austrian presidency of the EU said it was preparing to lodge a formal protest with the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in response to Mr Hill's remarks.

But Ms Bonino, who visited the Serbian province recently, is said by her officials to be dismayed at Europe's failure to halt the "ethnic cleansing" of the province's Albanian majority by the Serbs.

"She feels embarrassed that this has had to come from the mouth of an American but she shares Mr Hill's concern," sources close to Ms Bonino said. "She fears we are reliving the nightmare of Bosnia all over again."

The commissioner last week warned of a humanitarian catastrophe by the winter if the Serbian military campaign against the Albanian uprising in Kosovo continues.

The EU's humanitarian aid wing, led by Ms Bonino, is trying to channel aid to the refugees but access has been limited by Serbia's refusal to

co-operate with aid agencies on the ground.

With the international community in disarray over Kosovo, European governments seem resigned to a policy of caution on the war, while attempting to mop up the refugee crisis it is causing.

Yesterday two senior American envoys in Serbia, John Shattuck and Robert Dole, tried without success to put pressure on the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

After a meeting with Mr Milosevic, Mr Dole, a former US presidential candidate, accused the Serbs of "waging war against civilians for political purposes".

Mr Milosevic tossed his visitors a conciliatory bone by saying representatives of the International Red Cross could visit Albanians detained by the Serbian military and police. But he refused calls for an independent investigation into atrocities in the province.

His office indicated he had no intention of stopping his crackdown. His spokesman said Albanian "terrorism in Kosovo will be suppressed and eliminated", and called for international condemnation of the KLA rebels.

Fears have been growing about the fate of numerous male Albanians who have been separated from columns of refugees and taken away by the Serbs. In the war in Bosnia in 1992-5, the Serbs frequently separated Muslim and Croat families in this way, and thousands were never seen again.

In an apparent effort to avoid some of the international criticism, Mr Milosevic's security forces were reported to have released about 500 men taken captive in the latest offensive.

Kris Janowski, spokesman in Geneva for the United Nations' refugee body, the UNHCR, talked of a "major disaster" on the way in Kosovo. He said that funds for humanitarian aid are urgently needed but was pessimistic about the prospects.

Around 15 per cent of Kosovo's two million population are reckoned to have been forced out of their homes, and Mr Janowski warned: "We're running out of time. Winter is just around the corner."

The pressures have already spilled beyond Kosovo. Tiny neighbouring Montenegro, junior and increasingly restless partner in Mr Milosevic's rump Yugoslav federation, has received around 40,000 refugees in recent months. In addition, tens of thousands are still hiding in the woods, afraid to return home. Around 120 villages have been destroyed.

Despite the talk of mass graves, there is as yet no documented evidence of events comparable to the massacre of civilians in Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995.

One human rights observer who visited the site of an alleged mass grave in the town of Orahovac in central Kosovo said that the number of those who died was probably closer to 100 than to the 600 claimed by the Albanians.

Many of the Albanian civilians who died appear to have been shot as they attempted to flee the town when it was retaken by Serb forces from the Albanian guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Another tragedy: Review, page 4