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War In The Balkans: Anniversary - Birthday party becomes an uncertain council of war

"AS WE meet in Washington today, Europe is confronting a very serious crisis. Images of hundreds of thousands of deported people, burnt homes and destroyed villages recall images we hoped never to see again."

These were the words of Javier Solana, the Nato secretary-general, opening the inaugural session yesterday of what had been planned as a celebration of the alliance's first half-century. In the three weeks since the anniversary on 4 April, the mechanics and the purpose of the gathering have been transformed.

The favourite cliche in Washington was that a birthday party had become a council of war. For the pessimistic, the party had become a wake for an alliance whose time and credibility were exhausted.

Nato, which had prided itself on never having engaged its troops in any conflict on the continent of Europe, and on keeping the peace through the deterrent force of military strength, is marking its 50th anniversary at war. A generation of leaders, many of whom cut their political teeth in the anti-war movements of the Sixties, have ordered troops into the first serious armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War. And Britain, with Tony Blair speaking repeatedly of a "just war", is once again in the vanguard, at least of the rhetoric.

When Mr Blair and the other 18 allied leaders assembled at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, the mood was sombre.

General Hugh Shelton and General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, were due to open the gathering by giving allied leaders a briefing on the state of the conflict in Kosovo. The ensuing discussion was to consider urgent practicalities, such as: could the alliance remain united if military action were intensified. "We have done everything we could to resolve this matter peacefully, but when we fight, we fight to prevail," said President Bill Clinton.

This uncertain council of war is not what Washington had planned to mark what US officials had been calling for months "the most successful military alliance in history". There was to have been be a fly-past and a march- past incorporating the three new alliance members - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. There was to have been a White House banquet for the leaders, and another for all 44 members of the alliance and its post cold war affiliate, the Partnership for Peace. Russia was to have been an honoured guest.

In the past three weeks, almost every element was rethought or scrapped. First to go was the fly-past, judged inappropriate at a time when Nato planes were bombing Belgrade. Then the march-past was dropped. Last night's alliance leaders' banquet became a "small dinner".

Yesterday morning, the thoroughfares of ceremonial Washington were almost deserted: a security cordon in operation for almost a mile around kept all but delegates and journalists away.

Until Sunday, this is a secure area in a capital which is talking war.