Kosovo Crisis: Allies cautious as Nato forces gather in Adriatic

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DESPITE YESTERDAY'S announcement of the despatch of more ships and warplanes to the Adriatic and a halving of the readiness time for air attacks, there is still some way to go before the West resorts to force against President Milosevic to end the Kosovo crisis.

The arrival in particular of Nato's Strike Force South, including the US aircraft-carrier Enterprise, will increase allied firepower and provide additional means for rescuing the 700 monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo before any military action. But British officials said"this does not mean that air strikes are imminent."

The mood is different from October, when B-52 bombers had their engines running, waiting to take off from British airfields. Acutely conscious of the lack of a "day-after" strategy, the major powers are today stressing more vigorously the need for a political solution - even though that has never looked more remote.

The dilemma is simple but deadly: what happens when you have bombed Yugoslav army installations and equipment, and perhaps solidified Serb popular support behind Mr Milosevic, while hastening Kosovo's moves towards the full independence which you absolutely do not want?

Thus the "twin-track" approach, as it is now being packaged: the pursuit of a political settlement and simultaneous preparation of military action should all else fail. And, as Tony Blair acknowledged yesterday for the first time, this might have to include deployment of Nato ground troops.

But the underlying question is the same as when the ethnic Albanian insurrection in Kosovo burst upon the world's attention almost a year ago: will Mr Milosevic make the political concessions necessary to avert the use of force?

There are three immediate demands of the Yugoslav president: he must permit outside investigation of the massacre at Racak, rescind the expulsion order against William Walker, head of the monitors, and reduce his forces in Kosovo to the levels of February 1998, as stipulated in the October ceasefire deal with the US envoy Richard Holbrooke.

At the time, that part of the agreement was never spelt out precisely; but Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons this week that 12 army and special police companies were "out of barracks" ( ie in the field, suppressing ethnic Albanian "terrorists"), compared with a maximum of three companies agreed in October.

The next acid test of Mr Milosevic's intentions comes today, when he is to meet Knut Vollebaek, the Norwegian Foreign Minister and chairman of OSCE. He will stress that the 50-odd member-countries all approved Mr Walker's appointment, and were adamant he should stay on.

As the military track proceeds, so does the diplomatic. Officials from the Contact Group of leading powers will discuss the crisis in London tomorrow, and shortly thereafter their ministers will meet. Only then, at the earliest, would military strikes be undertaken.

But, as in October, the group is divided. The US is the most forthright in threatening military action, while Russia remains adamantly opposed.Britain, France, Germany and Italy are somewhere in between. Now as then, hope persists in European capitals that Moscow, whose deputy foreign minister is in Belgrade, will have some influence on the Yugoslav leader.

But few nurture illusions: "Milosevic will push to the very brink before giving ground," one diplomat predicted after the alliance's top generals came back empty-handed from Belgrade on Tuesday.

And what, for instance, if he permits Mr Walker to stay, and even allows in war-crimes investigators - but presses on with his crackdown none the less? Would that satisfy the West? Only one thing is certain: that no one is more skilled than Mr Milosevic at playing upon his opponent's own divisions and uncertainties.