Nato air strikes on Serbs could start in 48 hours

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The Independent Online
FIVE DAYS before the planned start of the Kosovo peace conference in France, the West is stepping up military and diplomatic pressure to force Serbs and Albanians to embrace the political settlement drawn up for them.

Kicking off what is bound to be a week of brinkmanship, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, went to the Balkans in person to deliver the leading powers' ultimatum for a deal by 20 February. At the same time, Nato authorised its Secretary-General, Javier Solana, to unleash military action if he judges it necessary.

This means air strikes by the hundreds of Nato planes in the region could start with 48 hours' notice if President Slobodan Milosevic refuses to pull back his troops as he promised when agreeing last October's failed ceasefire. Alternatively, the alliance could move to close the supply lines of the insurgent ethnic Albanians if they spurn the summons to negotiate.

After meeting the Prime Minister in London on Saturday, the US Vice-President, Al Gore, warned that "the rest of the world is united in demanding that Milosevic comply". Washington is also edging towards committing ground troops to police a settlement, as Britain, France and Germany have already done. Subject to congressional agreement, the Pentagon could contribute up to 5,000 of the total force of 30,000 men who might be required.

All that remains is for Serbs and Albanians themselves to attend the peace conference, to be chaired jointly by Mr Cook and the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine. "I told Milosevic the Contact Group proposals [on Kosovo's autonomy] offered him a way out of a conflict he cannot win against the great bulk of the Kosovo population," Mr Cook said yesterday. "I also told the Kosovo Albanian leaders that the proposals would provide for a democratic self-governing Kosovo free from fear and bloodshed."

The clearest-cut acceptance has come from Ibrahim Rugova, political leader of the Kosovo Albanians, but he is perhaps the least significant of the protagonists. The two who matter most, President Milosevic and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), are still considering their options.

Adem Demaci, a senior political representative of the KLA, told Mr Cook he needed time to consult commanders in the field - thus indirectly underlining the divisions between the Albanians' political and military leaders, which have hampered efforts to restart peace talks.