War In Balkans - Alliance: No ground troops, says Schroder

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GERMANY TRIED to quash Nato plans to launch an invasion of Kosovo, declaring yesteday that German troops would never participate in such an operation.

"For Germany, the deployment of ground troops is unthinkable," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. "This is our position, and it won't change in the future."

Mr Schroder was speaking at the end of a meeting in Bari, Italy, with the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, and his words were clearly intended as a rebuke to his host.

Mr D'Alema had prepared a joint document in advance, expressing support for his own peace initiative. This had called for a UN Security Council resolution, backed up with the implicit threat of an invasion of Kosovo if President Slobodan Milosevic did not comply with the demands of the international community.

Chancellor Schroder liked the first part of the package, but not the second. Against the expectations of the Italians, he refused to sign it. Germany, he explained, remained committed to a political solution, involving all Security Council members.

The German leader distanced himself further from Nato's hawks, most notably the British government, by refusing to rule out for the first time a unilateral ceasefire.

"I hope there will be a UN resolution ... after that we will have to discuss whether or not a suspension of the bombing can be considered," Mr Schroder said. This would appear to undermine Nato's central dogma, which states that the bombs must keep falling on Yugoslavia until Belgrade yields.

But perhaps that remark was intended for domestic consumption. The Greens, Mr Schroder's coalition partners, lined themselves up last week behind a call for a unilateral "pause" in the bombing.

Another resolution is being drafted, urging Nato to cease bombing to allow humanitarian workers to go into Kosovo. This motion, to be submitted to the German parliament after consultations with the Social Democrats, threatens to split Mr Schroder's party right down the middle.

But on the question of ground troops, at least, Germany is united. There is not a single party in the Bundestag in favour of German partic-ipation in an invasion of Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, the American public has swung against the use of ground forces, an opinion poll released yesterday indicated. The sounding shows that Washington's refusal to respond to British pressure for infantry reflects growing national opposition.

Half of those questioned by the Pew Research Centre said they did not approve of the use of ground troops, even if it would bring a swifter end to the conflict. A month ago, about 55 per cent of Americans said they supported the use of ground troops but that enthusiasm quickly waned.

The proportion approving of the air war has also dropped, from 62 per cent last month to 53 per cent, with those opposed rising from 29 per cent to 38 per cent. Sentiment had been affected by mistakes such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the pollsters said.