War in Europe: Front-line Balkan states wooed by worried Nato woo

pounds 1bn aid package for region Closer ties to EU Oil blockade bid fails
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BALKAN states around Kosovo are to be offered new formal links with Nato and the European Union as part of a multi-million-pound political and economic settlement designed to shore up their wavering support for military action in the region.

Nato, which concluded its 50th anniversary summit here yesterday, is rushing through an emergency package of aid for the countries bordering Kosovo, amid growing signs of frustration among their governments that they are bearing the brunt of a humanitarian crisis.

But as the air campaign against Serbia entered its second month, the summit failed to endorse British and American efforts to take tougher measures against President Slobodan Milosevic's regime. In the wake of reluctance to take steps towards a ground war, Nato signalled yesterday that it had failed to agree on a programme to stop oil shipments to Yugoslavia.

It pushed the issue further down the road, asking the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, to sort out detailed arrangements. But anything he arranges will have to be agreed by Nato ambassadors, so action is probably weeks away. Instead of a "stop and search" enforcement programme, Nato calls it a "visit and search" plan, as it apparently lacks legal authority to halt vessels in the Adriatic.

The blueprint for south-eastern Europe will be set out in a meeting with representatives of the "frontline states" - Macedonia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia - in Washington today. It is part of a drive to keep open the option of sending in ground troops, because the co-operation of those countries would be crucial to any such operation. The plan is also evidence of growing concern in the alliance that the conflict will escalate and spill over into other countries. One British source said the region was now a "tinder box" which needed a long-term political solution. Germany plans to host a conference on the future of the Balkans next month.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, has privately warned Tony Blair following his visit to the region that he detected growing anger in Macedonia that its territory was "being used" by the alliance to house refugees without anything substantial in return. Almost 500,000 have poured into Macedonia and Albania since the conflict started.

Mr Blair's efforts to put ground troops on the summit agenda were at best a partial success. The issue was again kicked into touch as Nato officials were asked to brush off the dust from pre-existing plans. In an article in yesterday's New York Times, Mr Blair sought to keep the idea on the table, writing: "Mr Milosevic cannot be granted a veto over our actions."

Although the US announced that it would add another 2,000 heavily armed soldiers to its Apache helicopter force in Albania, it is firmly resisting any moves towards a ground war. Instead, the focus of the summit was overwhelmingly on maintaining the current air campaign, which Nato officials insist is successful. "We want to not change strategy but reinforce strategy," said Jamie Shea, Nato's spokesman.

Bulgaria and Romania have granted Nato air rights to attack targets in Yugoslavia, and Slovenia has said it would let Nato forces cross its borders. However, Western diplomats believe more must be done by the alliance to "tie in" the countries around Kosovo into the Nato project.

Britain has drafted proposals for a fast track system to bring south- eastern European countries closer to Nato. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, raised the plan for a new consultative committee involving the seven states at a meeting with his counterparts on Friday night.

The Foreign Office circulated a paper to other European countries last week proposing they should be brought into "formal dialogue" with the EU. "This is the first stage of moving towards membership," one source said.