Nato urged to hit Serb death squads as massacres spread

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EVIDENCE of more atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo emerged yesterday, as western political and military leaders came under increasing pressure to launch effective strikes directly against the perpetrators.

Nato began its fourth wave of air strikes with the daylight launch of two Tomahawk cruise missiles from a US warship, apparently again aimed at strategic targets involving Yugoslav air defences or command centres. A large explosion was heard in Belgrade at sunset and air raid sirens there and in Pristina presaged another night of bombing.

A Nato spokesman, Jamie Shea, later said strikes against ground targets such as Serb tanks and troops in Kosovo could soon begin. He admitted that action so far in Operation Allied Force, involving missiles and high level bombing, could not stop the atrocities. Low-level operations would start as soon as Nato commanders are satisfied that the skies were safe for their pilots.

"Our aim is to strike at heavy weapons, which are of course what are used to bombard villages and kill people," said Mr Shea. "And this is what we aim to get on with as soon as the first set of targets has been effectively covered."

Downing Street admitted that this new phase could result in the first allied casualties. "The consequences are serious for the people there, and potentially for our own forces," said a spokesman.

Dozens - perhaps hundreds - of people were reported to have been killed by Serb forces in just one town the south of Kosovo. After Nato raids on the town of Djakovica on Friday night, Albanian sources claimed that 70 bodies were found in just two houses, but that "hundreds were killed all over town" and a mosque in the town was burnt down.

Albanian government officials reported that villages close to its border with Kosovo could be seen to be ablaze. Albanian television also said numerous dead bodies were seen lying on the ground in Kosovo's western Pec region.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, yesterday denied that the fresh wave of massacres had been caused by the Nato air strikes. "What I would emphasise is this repression has been going on for months. It's been going on for days leading up to the Nato air strikes," he said. "Indeed, in the few days before the Nato air strikes started, there were thousands of people displaced from their homes and whole villages torched."

George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, called Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, a "serial ethnic cleanser", and said: "The Serbs are bombarding villages to the point of obliteration. We have heard that some villages do not exist."

The Ministry of Defence was monitoring the atrocities and those responsible would later be brought to justice by the international war crimes tribunal.

President Bill Clinton later echoed the commitment in his weekly radio address. He talked of the need to "defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe" and reiterated America's resolve to carry on with the operation."We must, and we will, continue until Serbia's leader accepts peace or we have seriously damaged his capacity to make war."

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.

There are increasing reports of Serb assaults on civilians and looting and burning of Albanian-owned businesses in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. Men have been separated from women and children, and apparently taken away and shot, in what Mr Robertson called "a grisly echo of the savagery of the Bosnian war".

Serbia remained defiant. State television showed pictures of the damage caused by "Nato criminals", and said that civilians had been killed in the bombing. The Belgrade city authorities said that theatres would remain open and admission would be free during the bombing campaign. "We are following the example set by London during World War Two when they were bombed," said the city's cultural minister, Liljana Blagojevic.