Kosovo Crisis: Nato prepares to unleash air strikes as Serbs stand defiant

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KOSOVO WAS where the 20th century's final cycle of Balkan wars began. Now Kosovo is where they will end; not with a peace agreement but, surely now, with the first attack by Nato on a sovereign state in its 50-year history - and, if the worst comes to the very worst, with the first major European land war since 1945.

Last night, as Serb forces continued to sack Albanian villages, the Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana, ordered air strikes against Yugoslavia. He said: "All efforts to achieve a negotiated, political solution to the Kosovo crisis having failed, no alternative is open but to take military action."

Earlier, President Slobodan Milosevic, and then the Serbian parliament, had rejected demands for a ceasefire and the deployment of a Nato-led international peacekeeping force in the Serbian province.

In a further confirmation that war is imminent, Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Prime Minister, cancelled a visit to the United States which was due to start last night. The onslaught against the Serbs, which the White House said would be "swift and substantial", could be unleashed at any time.

In a grim interview as he left Belgrade for Brussels to report back to Nato, the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, made no bones of the failure of his last-ditch mission. The circumstances, he declared, were "the bleakest" he had known in his experience of negotiating in the Balkans.

That experience began in 1995, when Mr Holbrooke took the Bosnia crisis in hand, browbeating Mr Milosevic and the other protagonists to the conference table in Dayton, Ohio, where a peace was secured which has turned Bosnia into a virtual Nato protectorate. Alas, Kosovo was omitted then. Four years on, it has turned into perhaps the gravest Balkan conflict of all.

Mr Holbrooke said that yesterday's talks had been a "watershed moment", after nearly a year of unavailing Western efforts to broker a settlement between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. The Yugoslav President did not want even to discuss the ceasefire or the foreign peacekeeping force, and "fully understood" the consequences of that refusal. The time for talking had run out.

That, too, was the message from Western capitals. In the Commons, Tony Blair warned that 65,000 more Kosovars had been driven from their homes by the Serb offensive. The West had made a solemn promise to the ethnic Albanians, and would not permit a new humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. Nor would it tolerate further repression by Belgrade that might drag Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia - perhaps Greece and Turkey, too - into "disintegration, chaos and disorder on the doorstep of the European Union".

Later, the Prime Minister, even more plainly donned the mantle of commander- in-chief, addressing "those British pilots who may be called into action, their families ... all those people who are part of the armed forces ... I would not ask them to undertake this if I did not believe it was necessary". He later discussed the military options with President Bill Clinton in a 15-minute telephone call.

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, ruled out deployment of British ground forces against hostile troops but, referring to air strikes, added: "If we have to take military action we do so with a heavy heart because there is no alternative."

In Washington, the mood was equally sombre. Congressional leaders of both parties rallied behind President Clinton's call for support for military action. The sense was that air strikes were all but inevitable.

On the ground, all seemed set for war. In Belgrade, the government proclaimed a state of emergency. In London, the Foreign Office announced that all remaining staff were being withdrawn from the embassy and evacuated from Yugoslavia.

As Serb forces continued an offensive in the Drenica valley in the north of Kosovo - a strategy which had prompted speculation that the Yugoslav President was staking out the ground for a partition of the province - an ominous calm descended on the capital, Pristina, to the south. After a spate of bombings, Serb police rampages and tit-for-tat killings, the city was deathly quiet.

"Nato is now united and prepared to carry out its warning," President Clinton said. "If President Milosevic is not willing to make peace, we are willing to limit his ability to make war."

The threat has been heard a dozen times; this time, however, it rang true - perhaps explaining why the Yugoslav leader yesterday sacked his army's security chief. Analysts saw the step as continuation of a purge of senior officers opposed to a confrontation with the West.

Last night, the main political factor staying Nato's hand disappeared when Mr Primakov, leader of the country that is Belgrade's staunchest ally, called off his US visit. His withdrawal paved the way for the final stage.

Military preparations are virtually complete, and the hope now is that one crushing blow against key installations will suffice to convince President Milosevic to change his mind and accept the international peacekeepers.

If not, matters could quickly escalate, even to the point where a Nato ground invasion - something the allies have vowed they will never do - is the only remaining option. That is a nightmare scenario which no leader in the alliance has yet publicly confronted, but was implicit in the warning of one Nato defence minister yesterday: "Kosovo is not Bosnia. It needs a political solution, a military solution does not exist."

In the end, that solution will be up to Mr Milosevic. In 1987, as an ambitious younger member of the Serbian Communist Party leadership, he went to Kosovo, the spiritual cradle of Serbia, and made the speech that launched today's Serbian nationalism. Two years later he stripped Kosovo, and the 90 per cent Albanian majority of its population, of its autonomy. Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia then read the Serb writing on the wall, and left Yugoslavia. But Kosovo, where it all started, remained a tightly controlled part of Serbia. Now, in the last Balkan war, Serbia may lose even its heart.