War in Europe: Aid on way as FO says: `We failed'

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SECURE SANCTUARIES for hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees are to be set up in Macedonia by Britain and its Nato allies, as the Government admitted to a "failure of imagination" over the humanitarian crisis engulfing the Balkans.

Meanwhile, the aerial assault resumed last night, with Serbian state television reporting the destruction of the Sloboda (Freedom) bridge over the Danube in Novi Sad. Seven civilians were reported injured, phone lines were severed and Europe's longest river was blocked. The Petrovaradinski bridge was destroyed on Thursday, cutting the Orient Express railway. Only one crossing remains.

US President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, yesterday discussed the cruise-missile destruction of a key police building in central Belgrade on Friday and agreed it had sent a "powerful message". But allied pressure mounted with the diversion of the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, with 50 jets, and four other ships armed with cruise missiles to the Adriatic. They will join six other US ships there tomorrow.

The alliance will also send up to 6,000 Italian troops to Albania to protect a humanitarian relief effort for more than 100,000 refugees there.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, announced that he was close to clinching a deal with the Macedonian government to allow refugees to stay in designated safe areas, policed by armed Nato troops and funded by the international community.

People fleeing the war-torn province would be taken to these sanctuaries and given food, accommodation and medical care. Britain hopes that they would be able to return to their homes in Kosovo quickly once the conflict is over, rather than settling permanently in other European countries.

Concern is growing that aid agencies cannot cope with the influx of refugees and accusations that the international community has not done enough to prevent a humanitarian disaster - a disaster that is shaking Nato's fragile unity.

Nato has previously insisted that Belgrade comply with the Rambouillet peace agreement, which was signed by the Kosovo Albanians but not by the Serbs. But it is now looking for a new formula. "The chance of an acceptable solution relying on Rambouillet is increasingly remote," an official said in Brussels yesterday.

Nato's Secretary General, Javier Solana, speaking without the approval of all Nato governments, said the alliance could put forces into Kosovo to assist returning refugees before a complete agreement. His spokesman, Jamie Shea, said that Serbia would have to stop all military activity in Kosovo, withdraw its troops from the province and guarantee the refugees' safe return, possibly accompanied by a Nato-led protection force, before the bombing could stop.

But the US underlined again that it would not deploy ground troops in Kosovo without the full peace deal. "We will send a force in to enforce a peace agreement and it will go in not in a combative way," said a Pentagon spokesman.

The British Government has now admitted for the first time that serious errors have been made in handling the conflict. At a Downing Street briefing on Friday, a senior Foreign Office official said there had been a "failure of imagination" in predicting the extent of the refugee crisis. "We did not expect the speed, scale, and savagery with which Milosevic emptied whole towns in Kosovo," he said.

Macedonia has become the focus of the refugee crisis since its government said it would not accept any more displaced people. But its Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, yesterday indicated to Mr Cook that he would be happy for sanctuaries to be set up so long as they were run and funded by the international community.

The secure zones would cost millions of pounds. But Mr Cook has discussed the proposal with Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, other Nato foreign ministers, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and is confident of securing funds. David Manning, a senior Foreign Office official, will fly to Macedonia this week to finalise the details.

The Government is planning to give an extra pounds 10m to humanitarian aid for the Kosovars, on top of the pounds 10m announced last week. The US is giving $50m (pounds 31m). Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, will go to the region today to decide how the funds can best be used.

Britain is also drawing up contingency plans to house an influx of Kosovar refugees in this country. Ministers are considering a request by the UNHCR for the UK to allow thousands of ethnic Albanians into the country under a temporary protection programme. Germany and Ireland said they would accept refugees as long as their European partners did. Officials will meet in Brussels this week to discuss a pan-European strategy.