Nato orders low-level strikes to destroy Serb ground forces

US Stealth fighter shot down, say Yugoslavs
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NATO WARPLANES were last night ordered to directly attack the Yugoslav army and special police units which have perpetrated atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The sharp escalation in the campaign brings with it heightened risks for British and other allied pilots.

CNN showed Serb television pictures of burning wreckage, which Belgrade claimed was from a downed US F-117 Stealth fighter. Reports said it was shot down at 10pm local time 40km (30 miles) west of the Yugoslav capital. There was no word on the fate of the crew. Nato and US Defence Department sources would neither confirm nor deny the reports.

Javier Solana, Nato Secretary-General, last night authorised "Phase II" of Operation Allied Force, meaning that aircraft can carry out low-level attacks on tanks, artillery, and troop concentrations. Until now, operations have been limited to high-altitude bombing and the use of cruise missiles.

The new phase is seen as a response to growing political and public fears that the air campaign has worsened rather than eased the plight of the Kosovar Albanians, exposing them to Serbian reprisals.

Yesterday, Nato continued its attacks on strategic targets involving Yugoslav air defences or command centres. With the skies clearing after 36 hours of heavy rain, jets began taking off from bases in Italy. A large explosion was heard in Belgrade at sunset, followed by other impacts after dark.

Britain last night agreed to boost its contribution to the air effort. But Downing Street admitted the new phase could result in the first allied casualties. "The consequences are serious for the people there, and potentially for our own forces," a spokesman said.

The urgency for fresh action was highlighted as 5,000 refugees poured over the border with Albania, telling of forced expulsions, rising violence and more atrocities in Kosovo. According to other reports, dozens - perhaps hundreds - of people were killed by Serb forces in just one town in the country's south. After Nato raids on Djakovica on Friday night, Albanian sources said that 70 bodies were found in just two houses, but that "hundreds were killed all over town" and a mosque was burnt down.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed to increase British air power in a telephone conversation with President Bill Clinton following the decision to move to Phase II. This could involve the deployment of more RAF Harriers, which can carry out attacks by day or night.

Other allied aircraft now likely to join the force are US A-10 "Warthog" tank-busters and Apache attack helicopters. Operating at slower speeds and lower altitudes, however, significantly increases the risk of them being shot down by Serbian ground troops.

After the shooting-down of two Yugoslav MiGs over Bosnia on Friday, a Nato spokesman said that two helicopters violated Bosnian airspace yesterday. They left after being confronted by Nato planes. Five of Yugoslavia's 16 MiG-29 fighters are believed to have been shot down so far.

The Foreign Office said last night that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, had formed an alliance with Mr Milosevic against the West and had been secretly helping the Serbian leader to prepare his defences against Nato air strikes.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has been shown "overt" evidence of planes carrying Iraqi officials recently landing in Serbia. There are intelligence reports of growing collaboration between the two leaders. President Saddam is said to be providing Mr Milosevic with information on Western tactics, based on his experience of air strikes against Iraq. That could include details of weaponry and advice on spreading propaganda. It is further understood that senior Serbian officials have visited Iraq for training.