Nato places security ring around Kosovo to avert wider conflict

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AS FRESH fighting flared up in the Serbian province of Kosovo, the Nato allies yesterday announced plans to boost their military presence in neighbouring Albania and Macedonia, and signalled that if necessary they were ready to intervene directly in the disputed province to prevent a second Bosnian war.

Meeting in Luxemburg yesterday, the 16 Nato foreign ministers laid the foundations of what they hope will be a cordon sanitaire to prevent the simmering conflict between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and its Serb rulers in Belgrade from spilling over into a wider regional conflict.

As a first step, Nato will conduct a land-air exercise in Albania this August and expand an already scheduled exercise in Macedonia. Thereafter, the alliance peacekeeping forces will be strengthened in both countries. In Macedonia an 800-man US force is already in place; for Albania, the plans call for a force of up to 7,000 men which could be deployed there if needs be.

The moves reflect growing anxiety on all sides at the steadily deteriorating situation in Kosovo, an anxiety shared even by Russia, which refuses to support most Western sanctions imposed on President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia to force him into meaningful talks with the province's Albanian majority.

Last night new tension gripped the region after four ethnic Albanians were reported killed on Wednesday, three when their car was shot at by Serb forces south-west of the capital, Pristina, and a fourth when Serb soldiers shelled the village of Rastanica, close to the border with Albania.

The spectre which haunts the allies is that of another Bosnia, only worse; where repression and "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs turns into an open war with the Kosovo Albanians, which then drags in the Albanian minority in Macedonia, Albania itself and, if the worst comes to the worst, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Nato ministers declared they would consider "further deterrent measures, if the situation so requires". The statement did not elaborate, but the sense was plain: no option, even direct military intervention, is being ruled out.