UK sends in carrier as Nato tightens the screw

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BRITAIN IS sending the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible to the Adriatic, as part of Nato's largest reinforcement yet of its forces ranged against Yugoslavia.

The US last night announced that it was sending 82 more warplanes to the region, and it is expected that a further 4,000 British troops will soon be dispatched to Macedonia.

Together the moves will not only increase pressure on President Milosevic by demonstrating Nato's resolve, but also give its commanders new tactical options - including a joint land and airborne assault on Kosovo.

"We plan to take the fight to the army in the field in a big way," said US Maj Gen Charles Wald, a strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will announce today that the 22,000- ton Invincible has been diverted on its journey back from service in the Gulf and is expected to arrive off Balkan shores by Thursday.

The carrier is likely to be used as a platform for more RAF GR7 Harrier jets, or as a forward deployment for the 12 currently operating from Gioia del Colle in southern Italy. It will join the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, with its 46 fighter bombers, which arrived in the Adriatic last week.

The moves reflect Nato's concern that it is still not having enough impact on Serbian ground forces in Kosovo. Half the new US aircraft are tankers and most of the rest are air-defence suppression aircraft, suggesting that Nato commanders may be considering an airborne assault. Europe already has enough troop-carrying transports for such an operation, but would need a massive refuelling effort to fly units from European bases. Anti- radar planes to supplement the high numbers already flying from Italy would be deemed necessary to minimise the risks to such highly vulnerable troops.

The extra British troops, which would bring the total commitment to over 8,000, are on 72-hour standby in Germany.

Mr Cook yesterday received assurances from Russia that it had no intention of intervening in the conflict. He spoke to foreign minister Igor Ivanov for 45 minutes by telephone, following the dramatic warning given by President Boris Yeltsin on Friday that Russia would not permit Nato to mount a ground invasion of Kosovo.

There were also signs of movement within the Government over sending ground troops into Kosovo before a peace deal was signed. Ministers now privately admit that ground troops could go in once Milosevic's military capability has been sufficiently "degraded".

Exiled leaders of the Kosovars yesterday called on the West to make emergency aid drops from the air. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians trapped in Kosovo face death by exposure, disease and starvation, they said.

Ilaz Ramajli, the senior representative in Albania of Kosovo's unofficial government, said more than 300,000 people had fled to wooded mountainous regions of the province, with only ill-equipped Kosovo Liberation Army fighters protecting them. "Many people are dying already. Unless there are air drops of food, clothing, water and medicines very soon, it is possible there will be an enormous humanitarian catastrophe."

Mr Ramajli said his information came from refugees, people in hiding with satellite phones and KLA sources. Some of those trapped had been unable to flee across borders, but others had chosen to stay, underestimating the ferocity of the Serbian ethnic cleansing.