New offensive dashes ceasefire hope

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THE KOSOVO crisis edged even closer to the precipice yesterday as Serb forces mounted a major offensive against ethnic Albanian guerrillas, throwing into confusion efforts of the major powers to secure a ceasefire in a conflict which threatens a conflagration across the southern Balkans.

The attack, backed by heavy armour, artillery and helicopters, was aimed at the coalmine at Belacevac village just six miles west of Pristina, captured a week ago by the Kosovo Liberation Army - the KLA's boldest strike yet in its improvised but ever more effective military campaign to secure the province's independence.

Serb police, supported by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, moved in early on Monday sealing off roads to Belacevac. Eyewitnesses saw smoke billowing after repeated explosions around the open cast mine, whose main administrative building was occupied by KLA fighters. By early afternoon, two houses were burning in the close-by village of Hade.

Everything suggested the Serbs were embarking on a sweep through the country surrounding the mine, to end the humiliation of the recent KLA patrols in daylight within sight of Pristina itself - a challenge that seemed to presage an assault on the capital.

Control of the Belacevac mine, source of the fuel for the nearby power station, which provides electricity for most of the province, would be an important strategic advantage.

According to the Albanian Information Centre in Kosovo, Serb forces with more than 140 tanks, trucks and other military vehicles also ringed the village of Slatina, next to the military airport just east of Pristina.

Standing barely a mile away is the monument commemorating the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje between Serbs and Turks that has made the province sacred soil for Serbian nationalists.

Fighting was hotting up too around the village of Kijevo, where some 200 Serb civilians and 20 police are under siege from KLA forces. Two Albanians were reported killed after Yugoslav helicopters strafed the region on Sunday, but the extent of casualties was unclear.

But as Kosovo blazes, the big powers seem to dither. For all the brave talk of how the West will never permit another Bosnia, the prospect of military intervention has in fact if anything grown more distant - stymied by the virtual certainty of a Russian veto at the United Nations.

A meeting of top officials of the six-nation Contact Group, set for Bonn tomorrow was postponed until July 8, and European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg barely concealed disagreements over whether and how the KLA should be represented at any subsequent negotiation.

Ostensibly they back the new policy of the United States and its chief Balkan troubleshooter, the UN-ambassador designate Richard Holbrooke, that the KLA must be involved in any settlement of Kosovo's future. But several have misgivings, and all reject the independence demanded not only by the KLA but also the moderate ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova.

Gone too is any reference to earlier Contact Group demands of Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, notably the withdrawal of his forces from the province.

After chairing his last meeting of foreign ministers before Britain hands over the EU presidency to Austria tomorrow, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, declared the immediate priority was a ceasefire. This should be a prelude to talks at which "all shades of opinion" would be represented.

But, Mr Cook noted pointedly, Dr Rugova was "the elected and legitimate head of the Kosovo Albanians ... the man with whom we have been dealing."