Nato divided over Kosovo

Balkan crisis: Western forces are one step away from action against Serbia, but the political coalition looks fragile
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The Independent Online
IN THE Serbian capital, Belgrade, the order has gone out: Britons should be ready to evacuate at short notice. In Brussels, Nato's machine is one step from a military deployment. On both sides of the Atlantic politicians yesterday ratcheted up their rhetoric against the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Just one nagging question remained yesterday before the cruise missiles rain in on Serb positions in Kosovo. Does the West actually have the stomach to act?

On the surface, the signals to Mr Milosevic were tough. At Nato headquarters the top brass have produced a battle plan with four options, ranging from the "light" end of action, the minimum that the Serb leadership can expect, to the deployment of ground troops.

Stage one is certain to involve air strikes on military targets in Kosovo, removing air defences first, then denying the Serbs the ability to "prosecute action" in the area.

That could be extended gradually in area or severity through to the "high option", which would put troops on the ground.

With 11 of the 16 Nato countries publicly committed, the shape of a military offensive is becoming clear. The US sixth fleet, with five warships and three submarines, is on standby in the Mediterranean, as are four British Harrier jump jets in Italy.

Nato governments are sending formal notice of the number and type of forces they are willing to deploy. Then there will be a formal action order. By the middle of next week everything will be in place, to allow cruise missile and air strikes.

That, however, assumes that the political coalition sticks together. And, as one Nato official put it yesterday: "There are some nations that want to be certain that every diplomatic avenue was exhausted before taking action."

At the United Nations on Monday that discussion will take place, with several countries knowing that Nato's hand is more difficult than it seems.

There are fears that Mr Milosevic may well adopt his tactic, tried and tested in the 1992-5 conflict in Bosnia, of dividing the international community. As one Downing Street source put it: "As soon as the international community focuses on the issue he tends to lie doggo, claim that military action is over, and then the political support disappears."

Nato countries also lack agreement on a concerted political strategy needed to combat Serbian atrocities in Kosovo. While Tony Blair argues that Mr Milosevic responds only to the threat of military action, few believe that air strikes are, of themselves, going to resolve the crisis.

In the short-term, Western diplomats, aid workers and journalists could be at risk, particularly in Republika Serbska. In the longer term, air strikes may be ineffectual if ground troops are not committed to police the new climate.

That option has not been excluded and Nato argues that a small contingent could be brought in quickly, and rapidly built up, to capitalise on the effect of air strikes.

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