`This repellent war crime' A nation helpless Serbs goad impotent West

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THE WEST last night watched in impotent fury as Yugoslav forces continued to bombard targets in Kosovo, and Belgrade barred a top United Nations official from investigating last Friday's massacre of Albanians in the village of Racak and expelled the American envoy who accused the Serbs of carrying it out.

Seemingly indifferent to revulsion around the world and a host of diplomatic initiatives against him, President Slobodan Milosevic yesterday prevented Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, from crossing the Macedonian border into Kosovo. At the same time Serb security forces, backed by tanks and artillery of the Yugoslav army, bombarded the hillsides around Racak.

Finally, rounding off a day of frontal defiance, the Yugoslav government ordered out the American head of the international monitors attempting to preserve the disintegrating three-month ceasefire in the province. A statement issued by the official Tanjug agency accused William Walker of "flagrantly violating" his mandate, and ordered him to leave within 48 hours.

With Nato's credibility on the line, the alliance's two most senior generals are due to deliver in Belgrade today what will perforce be close to an ultimatum to President Milosevic in person, in what might be the last chance of averting all-out war in the Serbian province.

The UN security council was scheduled to meet in New York to demand immediate access for UN officials to investigate what Robin Cook described as the "appalling massacre" of the 45 ethnic Albanians at Racak. Tomorrow the Contact Group of leading powers is expected to hold an emergency meeting on Kosovo.

In a Commons statement, the Foreign Secretary said that if peace was ever to return to Kosovo, those responsible for the killing must be brought to justice. With even Russia, Serbia's traditional sympathiser,calling for an investigation, British officials were confident of a securing a statement - though not a resolution - demanding Mrs Arbour and her team be allowed back. "In any common understanding of the term, this is a war crime," Mr Cook said.

But there was no sign the diplomatic pressure would yield results. The last such trip to Belgrade by General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander, and General Klaus Dieter Naumann, chairman of the alliance's military committee, last October produced a halt to the fighting and the flood of Albanian refugees, and paved the way for the ceasefire brokered by President Bill Clinton's envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

Unlike then, however, B-52 bombers are not now waiting, at the end of an RAF runway in Britain to take off and bombard Yugoslav military targets. Faced with the intractability of the Kosovo crisis, many Nato members have lost their appetite for air strikes. In an interview with a German newspaper yesterday, General Naumann predicted a "long negotiation process" before any military action against President Milosevic. Force, said Javier Solana, Nato's secretary-general, was "a last resort."

But even universal revulsion at the slaughter cannot mask the dilemma facing the West. The atrocity, the worst in two years of intermittent fighting in Kosovo, has all but extinguished what tiny hope remained of genuine negotiations for a political settlement granting Kosovo greater autonomy.

And this time, the Kosovo Albanians are themselves blamed for attacks which led up to events in Racak - a search and destroy reprisal for the murder earlier in the week of a Serb police officer by guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The Serbs may have carried out the Racak massacre (though Mr Cook did not directly accuse them of it); but, he pointed out, the KLA until this weekend had been responsible for more deaths since the ceasefire than the security forces: they too had to "stop undermining the ceasefire and blocking political dialogue".

Only in Washington, perhaps, are trigger fingers starting to look itchy again. Many European governments agree with Mr Solana that the alliance "cannot be the KLA's air-force". Nor can it reasonably take the risk of air strikes which would place the 700-odd unarmed international monitors on the ground in Kosovo at risk of being taken hostage by the Serbs. On the other hand, if the strikes were successful and sharply reduced Mr Milosevic's capacity to wage a war of terror in Kosovo, they might hand the Albanians independence - which the West fears would only see the Kosovo crisis spreading into neighbouring countries.

Which leaves the most uncomfortable option of all: deployment of Nato ground troops, as in Bosnia, to keep the peace between two irreconcilable parties. This is opposed not only by President Milosevic but also by Russia, and is of dubious international legality.

President Jacques Chirac of France last night suggested the massacre could be the equivalent of the 1995 atrocity at Srebrenica, which led to showdown with the Bosnian Serbs, and finally the Dayton peace accords.

Send in troops, page 8; Children die, page 10; David Aaronovitch, Review, page 3

`In any common-sense understanding of the term, this was a war crime... However hardened we are by familiarity to such scenes, every member must have been shocked and repelled by the cold and calculated character of this massacre'

Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons yesterday