Serbian forces mass against Kosovo

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN TROOPS were reported to be preparing a big military offensive in Kosovo yesterday, just as their diplomats headed home from Rambouillet in France claiming victory in talks over the province's future.

One senior Nato official in the Netherlands reported a "substantial build- up" by the Yugoslav army in the province, including heavy armour, artillery, infantry and special forces.

The source said Nato feared Serbia may use its success in averting Nato's air strikes to try to smash the Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) before peace talks restart on 15 March.

British troops meanwhile landed yesterday at the Greek port of Salonica to join the Nato-led peace-keepers. The 225 troops from the 17th Port and Maritime Squadron will form part of a 28,000-strong force in Kosovo if a peace deal between Serbs and Kosovo's Albanians is signed.

But British soldiers will not be necessary if Belgrade's officials were correct in their claim that they had scuttled any chance of foreign intervention.

The Serb media described the outcome of the talks at Rambouillet as an unalloyed triumph for the government's policy of keeping foreign troops out of the southern province.

On arrival at Belgrade, Serbia's President, Milan Milutinovic, said: "Our efforts to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our country were affirmed." He dismissed attempts to pressure Serbia into accepting Nato peace-keepers as a farce.

Kosovo's tiny Serb community was also satisfied that the air strikes the US had pressed for had been averted. "Americans want to try to change history, but sometimes it just doesn't work," said Dusko Arandjelovic in the capital, Pristina. "Kosovo is Serbian, no matter what campaign the West launches."

With the US and Britain virtually isolated in wanting to take a tough line against Belgrade the Serbs may be correct in assuming they have weathered the worst.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, insisted yesterday that air strikes were still a possibility if the Serbs engaged in a "disproportionate response" to the KLA or took violent reprisals against civilians.