Six RAF Jaguar ground attack aircraft have been ordered to take part in Nato "live fire" exercises near the province of Kosovo even as Russia broke ranks with other leading nations meeting in London to say it opposed any use of Nato force.
As world leaders expressed alarm at the deteriorating situation, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, warned the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, would be making a grave mistake if he thought the international community would be as slow to respond as it was in the former Yugoslavia.
"We have learned our lesson from Bosnia," he said. "We hope that President Milosevic will also have learned that lesson and will today listen to the clear, loud and united message of the G8 countries."
George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, who has ordered a Tristar air tanker to Ancona in addition to the air deployment, said diplomacy was being backed by the threat of force. "This is not just defence ministers rattling sabres - it is time for Belgrade to get the message that Nato means business." Thousands have been forced to flee their homes as Serbian forces engage in a purge against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The six-strong Contact Group of world leaders last night issued a four-point list of demands designed to end the bloody crisis. They were: an end to repressive action by Serb forces against the civilian Albanian population and the withdrawal of these units; unimpeded access for international monitors and observers; measures to help up to 50,000 displaced people to return home; and "rapid progress" in talks with the Kosovo Albanian leadership.
Ministers at the meeting at Lancaster House made clear they saw a "serious deterioration" in the situation in Kosovo which "represents a significant threat to regional security and peace". Yet even before the British aircraft left RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, the Russians were repeating their opposition to any use of Nato force to end the Serb offensive.
At their insistence, the communique made no explicit threat of force if Mr Milosevic fails to comply "immediately". Russia also refused to join a ban imposed by the other members of the group - Britain, the US, France, Italy and Germany - on flights by Yugoslav airlines to and from their countries and a ban on new investment.
The Serb leader is making a trip to Moscow next week for talks with President Boris Yeltsin which the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, yesterday described as "potentially decisive".
Russia was isolated in its stance towards the Serb agression. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said: "If President Milosevic doesn't implement fully the action plan we agreed, further consequences will follow. If and when it becomes necessary to act, we will be ready."
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