Nato hits Serb troops as fears rise for 100,000 `disappeared'

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The Independent Online
THE WAR in the Balkans grew fiercer yesterday, with more bombings, more deaths and more reports of Serb atrocities, and scant evidence that any solid diplomatic initiative was in the offing - or that 19 days of air bombardment was breaking President Slobodan Milosevic's determination to resist.

Though it scaled back missile and bomb attacks on Serbia proper because of the Orthodox Easter, Nato extended night raids on Pristina into the morning hours, aiming at munitions dumps, oil facilities and radio relay stations and Yugoslav troops in the field. Bad weather hampered operations but the Yugoslav media said three civilians, among them a three-year-old girl, died in Mirovac, north Kosovo.

Alliance political leaders pointed to the dispatch of new firepower, including the British aircraft-carrier Invincible and 82 US warplanes, as proof of their determination to keep up the campaign for weeks, until Mr Milosevic stops persecuting ethnic Albanians and pulls his forces from the province entirely. Tony Blair likened critics of Nato's strategy to those who appeased Hitler in the 1930s.

The new forces include British Harriers, American F-16 jets and more "tank- busting" A-10 Warthog planes, on top of the 24 Apache helicopters and 8,000 additional Nato troops en route to Albania, officially with the sole task of helping refugees who have fled there for safety.

In Belgrade the leading newspaper editor, Slavko Curuvija, whose paper, Dnevni Telegraf, criticised Mr Milosevic, was shot dead at the entrance to his flat and his wife pistol-whipped. And an Australian aid worker was paraded on television and said he had confessed to being a spy.

Despite the allies' insistence that the air assault is squeezing fuel and arms supplies for the Serb forces in Kosovo and crippling communications - the latter point admitted yesterday - Belgrade shows no sign of launching an expected new peace offer, still less of easing its offensive against the Kosovo Albanians.

Yesterday "only" 4,000 refugees crossed the newly re-opened border into Albania. Western relief agencies are braced for heavy inflows this week. Every tale by terrified escapers, every shred of circumstantial evidence, suggests that Serb repression in the province continues unabated.

The most sinister mystery is the whereabouts of 100,000 - perhaps double that - "missing" ethnic Albanian males of fighting age, who have been separated from their families by the Serbs or failed to cross the border as refugees. In the absence of facts, theories abound: that they have been herded into camps by the Serbs or have taken to the hills to help scattered units of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) still operating as partisans against the Serbs - or that they have simply been massacred.

In Brussels, Jamie Shea, Nato spokesman, produced pictures of newly turned earth at Pusto Selo, south-west of Pristina, which he said could be evidence of a mass grave and which would be examined by the international tribunal in The Hague investigating war crimes in former Yugoslavia.

In London, Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, said as many as 400,000 Kosovars were living on hills and mountains in Kosovo without food or water - another catastrophe to add to the plight of the 500,000 Kosovars who have fled into Macedonia and Albania. "It's still a place of terror," Mr Cook said. "Villages are still being burned, people are still being forced out at gunpoint."

Albanians who gathered in Trafalgar Square shared Mr Cook's opinion, taunting several hundred pro-Serb demonstrators who were calling for an end to the bombing war.

"We are begging Nato to send in ground troops or arm the KLA, because the situation on the ground is getting worse by the minute," one Albanian, Meriton Krasniqi, said.

But the land war public opinion increasingly supports is officially still not on the cards. Both Mr Cook and Mr Blair again denied suggestions Nato was quietly readying a ground war by sending the extra troops and weapons into Albania, the likely launch-pad - an impression heightened by Tirana announcing it was placing the country's ports, airspace and other infrastructure under Nato control. A ground war "would be a massive undertaking and would take time to prepare", the Prime Minister told Newsweek.

Mr Cook did leave open the possibility that the alliance could enter Kosovo uninvited if Serb troops there had been so weakened by air attacks that they offered no resistance or had been pulled out. But that was a hypothesis "some way down the road".

On the diplomatic front too, progress is minimal. Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, today meets Nato colleagues in Brussels and tomorrow holds talks in Oslo with Igor Ivanov, Foreign Minister of Russia, which has tried to broker a compromise to halt the bombing.

Neither occasion is likely to produce a breakthrough. Russian rhetoric has cooled since Friday's mutterings by President Boris Yeltsin about a European, even a world, war if Nato launched a ground invasion. But Moscow's mood will not have been improved by Hungary's refusal to allow transit to part of what was described as a relief convoy, on the basis that it contained some armoured vehicles and was carrying fuel, both proscribed by UN sanctions.