Europe in 1998: Refugees flee torched villages

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AS TENSIONS mounted further in Kosovo, leaders of the province's ethnic Albanian majority last night pulled out of scheduled talks with Serbian authorities, and a senior European foreign minister urged direct Nato intervention to restore stability.

The talks had been due today, but representatives of the ethnic Albanians said they had been rendered pointless by the latest massive Serb offensive, which had taken scores of lives, reduced entire villages to rubble and made up to 50,000 people homeless.

Simultaneously, pressure intensified for stronger action from the West to halt the fighting. Speaking at a regional summit in the Ukrainian resort of Yalta, the Albanian foreign minister, Paskal Milo, said that the province was "on the eve of open war", while his German opposite number, Klaus Kinkel, demanded immediate measures to prevent a flood of refugees into the European Union.

"Nato will be there to intervene this time if necessary," Mr Kinkel said at an EU meeting in Palermo. He vowed that there would be no repeat of the inaction which allowed the Bosnian war to drag on for three full years. "If the situation becomes absolutely chaotic, ways must be sought of intervening in Kosovo itself."

Almost certainly, the Contact group of leading Western powers will meet in the next few days, and at the very least reimpose the economic sanctions on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that were briefly suspended after he agreed to enter the talks. It may also accelerate and expand Nato's existing plans to impose a cordon sanitaire around Kosovo.

Albania itself, already Europe's poorest country, has appealed for extra foreign aid to help it cope with the 12,000 refugees from Kosovo it is already housing - not to mention the thousands more who are seeking to join them.

Officials in Tirana also warn of possible "hot pursuit" raids by the Serbs into Albania proper, a first step towards a feared internationalisation of the crisis.

Since last February, more than 250 people have died in the fighting, including 20 Serbian police killed by the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose campaign for full independence has radicalised the conflict - and eroded the influence of the veteran ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who opposes the use of violence.

Thanks, however, to Mr Milosevic,violence is engulfing the region, and Mr Rugova's room for manoeuvre is shrinking daily. In an interview with an Albanian paper yesterday, one of the KLA's leaders, codenamed Celiku or "steel", claimed that Mr Rugova had lost touch with the people, and that the Kosovo Liberation Army must be represented at any talks with the Serbs.

The world needed to send the "strongest possible signal" to the feuding parties in Kosovo, Tony Blair said last night. Speaking after a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok in the Hague, Mr Blair indicated that he was looking at speedy action within the British presidency of the EU, which finishes at the end of the month.

Mr Blair made it clear that he wanted to consider what Britain and the international community could do. But he declined to give any details of what that might entail.

The Prime Minister also talked through the issue with cabinet colleagues in Downing Street yesterday. His official spokesman said that Mr Blair had told colleagues that the situation in Kosovo was "getting very serious and the Serb forces were being extremely aggressive".

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, also briefed colleagues on diplomatic and other options for reacting to the crisis.

Former communist Albania has won international praise for showing restraint in the face of mounting violence in Kosovo.