NATO Forces: Allies mobilise for peace or war

Click to follow
HUNDREDS of Nato aircraft and thousands of troops with tanks and other heavy equipment were moving towards positions in the Balkans yesterday, or already standing ready to strike. But whether they will make peace or war in Kosovo was still hanging in the balance.

Fresh deployments of air and land power, starting today, demonstrate how the allies were pursuing a twin-track strategy right to the brink over the troubled Serbian province.

This morning six B-52 bombers will land at RAF Fairford, in Gloucestershire, after flying overnight from bases in the US. It is believed that they are armed with air-launch cruise missiles for use in any strikes on Serbia.

Tomorrow and throughout the week, more than 2,000 British troops will move from their bases in Germany to deploy in Greece and Macedonia. They will form the heavily armed advance element of any Nato-led peace implementation force for Kosovo (K-For), of 28,000 total strength, which will be activated after any agreement is signed.

Caught in the middle of these two scenarios are the 1,300 unarmed "peace verifiers" of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including 225 Britons, who have been monitoring the five-month ceasefire in Kosovo. They run the risk of becoming hostages or human shields if negotiations continue to be deadlocked, which could see Nato launch an operation to rescue them using the 2,300-strong extraction force already in place in Macedonia.

Air strikes would be US-dominated, while land operations would be predominantly British. The extraction force, which includes a contingent of British armoured infantry from the King's Own Royal Border Regiment and which is on six hours' notice to move, is under French command. In reality, however, all of the options and forces are likely to become entangled as the situation unfolds.

If it is initially to be air strikes, the operation would closely follow that carried out against Iraq in December. Any attacks are expected to follow between 48 and 72 hours after peace talks are finally judged to have failed.

The barrage would open with attacks by about 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from seven US Navy vessels, and from the B52s. They would be targeted at Serbian air defence systems, to allow follow-up attacks by some 430 strike aircraft currently in the region. Of these jets, 260 are American, land-based in southern Italy or with the carrier USS Enterprise, while Britain has eight Harrier GR7 bombers on standby at Gioia Del Colle in Italy.

In the first phase, missiles would hit targets including eight fixed surface-to-air missile sites and 60 mobile units as well as radar sites, command and control centres and key barracks. Secondary targets would include units of the Serbian interior ministry's special police, airfields, warehouses and tank depots. The US would like other nations to participate in the first wave of strikes to emphasise that this is not a unilateral American action.

"There are many different assets in Yugoslavia which are vulnerable," said General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. "We're very much aware of what these assets are and where they are."

The US says the Kosovo Verification Mission would withdraw by road to Macedonia before Nato launched air strikes. If it has to be rescued, however, the extraction force could be buttressed with ground and helicopter-borne forces from the 2,000-strong US Marine force due to arrive in Thessalonika this weekend. But a hostile extraction would in turn require air cover, which would mean suppressing Serb air defences.

The most formidable ground forces on the way to the region are the lead battle group of the British 4 Armoured Brigade, which would form the spearhead of K-For. Its Challenger tanks, Warrior fighting vehicles and AS90 self- propelled 155mm guns left Germany for the region last week; 2,000 troops will be dispatched in the next week to prepare for the arrival of the heavy equipment on 1 or 2 March. A total of 8,000 British troops have been put on standby.

Also on the move this week will be a further 225 British personnel, principally logistics and engineering, to prepare for the intended deployment of Nato's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, which would command the whole of K-For, and to choose its location. Led by a British commander, Lt-Gen Sir Mike Jackson, this 1,000-strong headquarters would be supported by a further 2,000 British troops, also based in Germany.

Among other allies that have pledged contributions to the force are France, which has promised 5,000 troops, and Germany which has said it will send up to 4,000.