Serbs retaliate with massacres as Nato bombing intensifies

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The Independent Online
THE KOSOVO war sank deeper into a seemingly unstoppable maelstrom of violence last night as Nato increased its bombing of Yugoslav targets and chilling reports emerged of Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians in the insurgent province.

Two Yugoslav MiG-29s were shot down as they attempted to strike Nato- led peace-keepers in Bosnia. A Nato spokesman said the pilots had been captured by Bosnia Stabilisation force troops.

According to accounts from people fleeing the violence into Albania, and from the United Nations refugee agency in Geneva, Serb paramilitary forces and masked irregulars were bursting into homes across western Kosovo and killing people at random.

Three villages close to the Albanian border had been completely burnt. In one incident, the Serb security forces were said to have separated 20 men from their families and executed them on the spot. The victims included the local school headmaster and several teachers. According to other reports, the Serbian authorities have released violent criminals from jail and sent them into Kosovo.

Thus does Nato's bombardment of military installations in Yugoslavia, far from reducing the sufferings of the Albanian population in Kosovo, only seems to be making them greater - and by its own admission, there is nothing the alliance can do about it.

Insisting that the Western allies had been well aware beforehand that President Slobodan Milosevic would probably vent his fury at the Nato air strikes against the unprotected civilians in the Serbian province, General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander, yesterday accused Belgrade of practising "ethnic elimination" on the Albanians.

Outlining tactics gruesomely familiar from previous stages of the year- long conflict in Kosovo, and from Bosnia earlier in the decade, General Clark said: "The armed forces ring the villages, they prevent assistance from getting in, they prevent people from getting out, and then they systematically go through and loot and burn and shoot people."

But while Nato could take out fixed military targets from the air - and indeed was reported to have destroyed a Yugoslav special-forces base at Hajvalia in Kosovo - he acknowledged that air power could not be used against small paramilitary groups mingled with the local population.

After sending bombs and missiles against 50 targets - including barracks, military factories, airfields, and radar units - in 400 sorties in the first two nights of bombing on Wednesday and Thursday, the Western allies yesterday unleashed their first daytime attacks - a sign of their confidence that they are, in General Clark's words, "taking apart their air-defence systems".

In mid-afternoon, the US warship Philippine Sea launched a salvo of cruise missiles, while Nato jets took off from Italian air bases to join four B-52s that had earlier left the RAF base at Fairford, Gloucestershire, laden with cruise missiles, presumably to blast Yugoslav military sites. Last night, a Nato spokesman denied Belgrade claims that an allied plane had been downed over Serb Bosnia.

Despite signs of growing public unease, and warnings from some prominent figures that Nato's assault was leading it into a blind alley and the possible humiliation of ultimate failure, Western leaders insisted right was overwhelmingly on their side, and that there could be no turning back.

Last night, in a broadcast to the nation, Tony Blair asked for its support in the Kosovo crisis: "It will be tough. But now that we have begun, I ask your support in seeing it through." Of the British forces going into action, he said: "I want them to go with the whole country united behind them."

Earlier, in a telephone message to the RAF Harrier crews operating from Gioia del Colle in Italy, the Prime Minister told them that what they were doing "was vital to Europe's security and stability".

In a videotaped message to the Serb people, President Clinton stressed Nato had no quarrel with them, only with their leadership for refusing the proposed Kosovo settlement and inflicting violence on its people. He accused President Milosevic of risking the country's future, and "forcing Serbia's sons to keep fighting a senseless conflict you did not ask for and that he could have prevented", and of "isolating you from the rest of Europe".

Not to have used force now would only have meant doing so later, when the situation on the ground was even more critical, the French President, Jacques Chirac, for his part warned. But neither the Serb public nor their leaders showed any sign of wavering.

And for all the insistence on unity, splits were starting to emerge within Nato. Greece, the alliance member nearest to the Balkan tinderbox, called for an immediate resumption of negotiations, while Italy, also close to the military theatre and with a strong ex-Communist presence in its parliament, also urged an early end to bombing and the return of diplomacy.

The West's worst post-Cold War rift with Russia also grew deeper still. Furious at the punishment being meted out to its traditional Serb allies, Moscow last night expelled Nato's representative in the country, and announced it would send "humanitarian aid" to Belgrade. Western planners now fervently hope the humanitarian assistance does not extend to arms and parts for Yugoslavia's mostly Soviet-era weaponry. Hundreds of demonstrators again protested outside the British and American embassies in Moscow.

In a small diplomatic victory for London and Washington, the United Nations Security Council overwhelmingly rejected a Russian motion last night calling for an immediate halt to all the bombings.