Nato gathers strike force for Kosovo

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The Independent Online
AFTER MONTHS of dithering, Nato took its first steps yesterday towards assembling a multinational force to carry out air strikes to halt President Slobodan Milosevic's ever fiercer offensive against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo.

The apparent new-found determination to get to grips with what is already a colossal humanitarian disaster came as Serb forces continued to pound Kosovo's central Drenica region, stronghold of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Serb units captured and set fire to more than a dozen villages, putting to flight a further 20,000 Albanian civilians.

Last night the United Nations Security Council was due to approve a resolution drafted by Britain and France demanding a ceasefire and the opening of negotiations for a political solution to the crisis, failing which unspecified "further action and additional measures" would be taken to restore peace.

Though the wording stops well short of an explicit authorisation of force, Nato planners are already starting to line up contributions to a force that would carry out contingency plans to attack Yugoslav military targets in Kosovo and failing that, the rest of Serbia.

Today Nato ambassadors in Brussels will give the go-ahead for assembly of a force, before alliance defence ministers give a public imprimatur at their regular autumn talks at Vilamoura in Portugal. Germany has promised 14 Tornado aircraft, while the Netherlands has reportedly pledged a squadron of F-16 fighters.

In the past, this sort of ultimatum has been blithely ignored by President Milosevic. But this time, Nato members are only too well aware that the last shreds of their credibility in Kosovo are on the line, and they have perhaps their last chance to make good on the repeated undertaking that, come what may, they would never permit another Bosnia.

Instead, events are unfolding in ominously similar fashion. With an estimated 300,000 people homeless, a humanitarian crisis this winter is already assured. Evidence is growing too of atrocities, with assurances from Belgrade - echoing those of the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian war - that the situation had been "stabilised" and that refugees were now returning to their homes.

In an effort to make the threat believable, US officials at Nato have given an unusually detailed idea of what form the strikes could take, starting with cruise missile attacks against Serb communications facilities and depots in Kosovo.

Politically the moment seems ripe. The Serbs have the upper hand, enabling Mr Milosevic to negotiate, if he so chooses, from a position of strength.

But nothing is certain. Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, admitted: "There's no agreement among anyone about next steps," Russia remains hostile to the use of force. The US and Britain, however, have let it be known they will act if necessary, with or without the approval of the Russians.