War in Europe: Nato cracks over Serbia oil blockade

NATO'S FRAGILE unity in the Kosovo conflict was shattered last night over controversial American plans for a blockade on oil going into Serbia.

At the summit here to mark the 50th anniversary of Nato, President Jacques Chirac of France said it would be an "act of war" forcibly to stop and search tankers suspected of carrying supplies to Slobodan Milosevic's regime. The US and Britain wanted Nato to have the power to board ships in the Adriatic in order to prevent fuel reaching Serbia, but failed earlier to obtain the necessary support. Tony Blair also enjoyed little success in seeking moves towards a possible ground war.

With the air campaign against Serbia entering its second month, raids were reported around the capital, Belgrade, last night, and five children were said by Serbian media to have been killed in Kosovo when they dismantled an unexploded bomb.

The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, has been asked to sort out arrangements to stop oil reaching Serbia. But anything he proposes will have to be agreed by Nato ambassadors, so action is probably weeks away. Instead of a "stop and search" programme, Nato calls the operation a "visit and search" plan, as it appears to lack the legal authority to halt vessels.

President Chirac said, however, that the inspection proposals were "very sensitive". "If the ships let themselves be inspected that is fine but if they don't allow inspection that could be tantamount to an act of war," he said. "That could lead to certain problems."

His words were in stark contrast to those of Bill Clinton and Mr Blair, who made clear they supported tough action. President Clinton insisted: "If we want this campaign to succeed ... then we have to take any reasonable measure." Asked whether it would be acceptable for Nato to board tankers, Mr Blair said that there were "key actions" which the alliance should take to prevent President Milosevic being able to refuel his tanks.

In response to Mr Blair's efforts to put ground troops on the agenda, Nato officials were simply asked to brush off the dust from pre-existing plans. 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.