Kosovo Offensive: Milosevic `must not widen conflict'

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AS THE first fighter jets took off from their bases in Italy, the United States issued a new warning to the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, saying that he should not interpret Nato's use of force as giving him "a free hand" to act elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

European leaders meeting in Berlin also issued a toughly worded statement condemning Serbia's human rights violations in Kosovo, lamenting the plight of its population and warning: "An aggressor must know that he will have to pay a high price. That is the lesson to be learnt from the 20th century.'

The statement, however, fell short of formally sanctioning the air strikes and masked the misgivings of several member states. Greece kept its objections to itself, but neutral Sweden voiced doubts. Its foreign minister, Anna Lindh, said that air strikes "would not be covered by international law".

The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, conceded that the statement was a token of EU "solidarity" rather than a declaration of war on Serbia. All Mr Milosevic had to do to turn back military action was to make a telephone call saying that he was ready to accept and implement the recent Rambouillet peace accord on Kosovo's future status, he added.

In Washington the US State Department spokesman, James Rubin, warned Serbia against any attempt to overthrow the pro-Western government in Yugoslavia's other republic, Montenegro. Mr Rubin said such action would "only fuel regional instability and escalate the conflict with Nato". He also said casualties in Montenegro from Nato action could not be ruled out.

Mr Rubin indicated not only that US administration discussions had encompassed such an eventuality, but also that Nato operations might go beyond the envisaged air strikes on targets in Serbia and the province of Kosovo. Mr Rubin,was punctilious about presenting the action as a Nato operation, not an operation that was US-inspired.

There was only partial clarity, however, on the precise reasons for the decision to use military force. Mr Rubin said that there were three: Mr Milosevic was "not negotiating seriously in the peace process", he was "not complying with the October agreements" and he had launched "new aggression" on Kosovo.

He said that there were two main objectives: "to seriously degrade the Yugoslavs' ability to wage war against Kosovo Albanians and to deter any offensive they may have in mind". He said, however, that there was no expectation that force would "get the peace treaty signed"- the agreement negotiated in Rambouillet and signed by the Kosovar Albanians last week.

For Mr Clinton, who spoke to a predominantly black audience in commemoration of Ron Brown, the US Trade Secretary killed when his plane crashed in Croatia several years ago, the main objective was humanitarian: to halt the suffering in Kosovo. Mr Clinton was expected to make another statement after the first strikes last night in an address to the nation from the Oval Office.