UK 'offers 50,000 troops' for Kosovo

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN HAS offered to provide up to a third of a 150,000 Nato invasion force for Kosovo, according to reports in the United States yesterday.

At a secret meeting of defence ministers in Germany last week, alliance officials met to discuss the issues of a forced entry into Kosovo if the air war fails in its objectives, the New York Times said. George Robertson reportedly said that Britain could provide up to 50,000 troops, a force larger than that deployed to the Gulf in 1991 for the war against Iraq. It would put huge strain on Britain's military capacity to deploy such a force.

The Ministry of Defence said that a meeting had taken place, though it denied that it had officially discussed an invasion force or put a figure on Britain's contribution to any such force. The Pentagon underlined that active consideration is being given to a peacekeeping force only. "There is no consensus for sending ground forces into Kosovo under other circumstances," said a Pentagon spokesman.

Thursday's meeting, between the US, France, Italy, Germany and Britain, took place on the fringes of a gathering of European ministers in Bonn, and the presence of the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, was not disclosed. General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that an invasion would take 150,000 troops, the New York Times reported. America, Germany and Italy have been adamant so far that a ground invasion could not be contemplated, but planning in Brussels and at Nato's military headquarters in Mons has been under way for weeks.

Publicly, Nato continues to insist that the air war is working. "I don't care how tough that army is or how it tries to hide, no army can stand the continual losses day after day in a campaign of indefinite duration," said Gen Clark yesterday. Nato aircraft launched another huge round of attacks yesterday, and Belgrade and Novi Sad were both left without electricity. Strikes were also launched against Yugoslav targets on the coast of Montenegro.

France and Germany called for a meeting of the Group of Eight nations to assess diplomatic progress after Friday's visit to Belgrade by the Russian negotiator, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Although President Slobodan Milosevic was reported to have said he would accept the conditions for an end to the war laid down by the G8, Britain was cautious. "This shift by Milosevic shows the pressure is now beginning to tell on him," said Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. "However, he has got to go beyond accepting principles to talking about real substance if he wants to prove he is serious."

A Belgrade court yesterday convicted two Australian aid workers and their Yugoslav colleague of spying and sentenced them to prison. Steven Pratt was sentenced to 12 years, Peter Wallace to four years and Branko Jelen received a six-year term. The two Australians were arrested when they crossed from Croatia into Yugoslavia, and border guards became suspicious of their laptop computers, files, and mobile telephones.