Nato warns of military action over Kosovo

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THE Western powers yesterday stepped up their pressure on President Slobodan Milosevic, with their clearest warning yet that Nato would intervene militarily, if necessary, to prevent Serbian violence and alleged ethnic cleansing in the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo.

Speaking in Rome, Tony Blair declared that Kosovo would not degenerate into another Bosnia, where Western dithering is widely blamed for allowing war to drag on for three years. "We are examining every possible option," the Prime Minister said after talks with his Italian opposite number, Romano Prodi, "It would be a very serious error to underestimate our resolve."

Earlier, the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, was even more explicit: "The full power of Nato is considering all options, including the most radical ... military options that could, and might have to be, made available. President Milosevic should be under no illusion about this."

In an unusually blunt statement, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused the Serbs of "atrocities" in Kosovo and demanded that "this kind of aggression" be confronted "immediately and with determination."

The hope is that the tough talk will prod Mr Milosevic into meaningful negotiations with the ethnic Albanian majority over a new and special status for the province, granting wide autonomy but stopping short of full independence. But scheduled talks yesterday were boycotted by the Albanians in protest at the crackdown which has taken at least 50 lives in the past week, and there is no sign when they might resume.

Mr Robertson's words also reflect the growing realisation that Nato's initial plan, to deploy perhaps as many as 20,000 troops along Kosovo's border and in Macedonia to prevent the conflict spreading, might be counterproductive - actually helping the Serb cause by depriving guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army of both supply lines and sanctuary in Albania. The alternative would be direct intervention by Nato forces inside the province.

Alliance defence ministers will examine such plans at a meeting in Brussels next week. On Friday, the Contact Group of six major powers, comprising Britain, the US, Russia, France, Germany and Italy, will gather in London. Almost certainly five of them, with Russia the usual dissenter, will tighten economic sanctions against Belgrade. They perhaps agree in principle to military intervention.