Kosovo Offensive: `Why we have drawn the line over Kosovo'

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The Independent Online
GEORGE ROBERTSON, the Defence Secretary, told MPs last night that Slobodan Milosevic was "hell bent on war" and Nato had no alternative but to respond with its air attack.

There was overwhelming support for the action, but many MPs privately said the backing masked a deep cross-party unease at Westminster at the objectives of the air attacks on Serbian forces.

Tony Blair yesterday prepared public opinion for casualties. "I have not attempted to conceal from people that with any military action there are risks...but the alternative is to allow him (Milosevic) to carry on repression," he said.

In spite of renewed assurances from the Defence Secretary that British forces will not be drawn into a land battle, there was concern at Westminster that British troops will be dragged into a Balkan war by Milosevic to break public support in the West for the offensive.

"It's not like the Gulf War where people were either for or against the bombing," said one prominent Labour backbencher. "There was a small group of Labour MPs who opposed it. This time, the unease goes right across the parties."

As the final countdown for the bombing began, doubts were being raised about the objectives of the air strikes. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, standing in for Tony Blair who was attending the EU Berlin summit, faced sharp questioning by the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, over the political objectives.

Mr Blair said yesterday: "The objectives are very clear indeed. It is to curb Milosevic's ability to wage war, to repress the civilian population in Kosovo."

That means ministers will be able to claim some success after destroying the military assets being used to mount the attacks on Kosovo villages, but, significantly, ministers are not promising that air strikes alone will stop the crimes against humanity. The Prime Minister returns from Berlin today to renewed questions about what will be done if the air bombardment fails. On Tuesday, Mr Blair ruled out a land battle, telling the Commons this would require more than 100,000 alliance troops - nearly the whole of the British army - to wage a land war against the Serbian army.

Military chiefs have assured Mr Blair they are confident the more limited objectives are achievable. The Defence Secretary yesterday told the cross-party Commons Defence Select Committee he had sufficient forces to meet all the potential action Milosevic might take.

If troops in Macedonia or Bosnia were attacked, Mr Robertson said: "They [the Serbs] would be attacking people who are engaged in peacekeeping and represent no threat to them. It would be gross violation of international law. To do so would lead to an immediate and considerable response in self-defence from us."

He added: "What we have tried to do in Bosnia and in Kosovo is to tell those who would use violence to achieve historical missions or day-to-day land aggression cannot get away with it. In Kosovo, we have to draw the line."