War In The Balkans: Blair tells Serbians to overthrow Milosevic's `corrupt dictatorship'

TONY BLAIR yesterday called on the Serbian people to "cast out" the Milosevic regime, which he described as a "corrupt dictatorship".

The Prime Minister told the Romanian parliament in the capital Bucharest that a future democratic Serbia could rejoin the international community. "That prospect will only be a reality when corrupt dictatorship is cast out and real democracy returns to the former republic of Yugoslavia," he said. "This is what we want for the Serb people. A return to democracy in the former Yugoslavia will unlock a better future for the whole region ... Milosevic and his hideous racial genocide will be defeated. Nato will prevail."

The Bulgarian parliament voted yesterday by 154 to 83 to let Nato use Bulgarian airspace to attack Yugoslavia. Bulgaria's neighbour Romania recently voted to give the Western alliance use of its airspace to attack Serbia, as has Hungary, the only full Nato member state bordering Yugoslavia. Up to 20 Nato fuel tanker planes are expected in Hungary this week, to handle up to 50 Nato attack aircraft.

With Albania a virtual Nato client state, the decision by the Bulgarian parliament means every state bordering Yugoslavia is now a Nato ally or member, apart from the former Yugoslav republics Bosnia and Croatia, and the alliance now encircles Yugoslav airspace.

The decision by Bulgaria and Romania to align themselves with Nato is likely to speed their eventual membership of the Western alliance. Until now a line had been drawn between central and eastern Europe over membership. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined last month, but Romania and Bulgaria had been kept at arm's length. Yet all that could change as the planners of Operation Allied Force come to appreciate the military and strategic value of the Balkan states' Black Sea ports for the movement of troops and munitions, and the countries' long land frontiers with Serbia.

Bulgarian government ministers said voting for Nato's request would help integrate into Europe the country, which has been languishing behind the central European states. "Those who vote against, apart from the issue of silent complicity, will vote for prolonging the conflict and against the united Europe," said the Foreign Minister, Nadezhda Mihailova.

The Bulgarian vote will be welcomed at Nato headquarters. Several stray Nato missiles have landed in Bulgaria. There was nationwide fear that Bulgaria could be unwillingly dragged into war after a Nato missile damaged a house in the capital Sofia, although no one was injured.

Nato's Supreme Military Commander, Wesley Clark, visited Sofia on Monday on a morale-boosting visit for pro-Nato politicians such as the Prime Minister Ivan Kostov and to help offset the damage done to the alliance's image by the rogue projectiles.

"Nato has given very strong assurances to Bulgaria that it will respond to any challenge to Bulgaria resulting from Nato use of Bulgarian airspace," General Clark said, adding that it was a matter of "highest priority" for Nato to work out measures, including a friend-foe aircraft identification system, to prevent a repetition of the stray rocket incident.

A special commission is expected in Sofia by the end of the week to review Bulgaria's air defences. But, while the region's governments have won the parliamentary battles to align their nations with Nato, the war to win over public opinion will prove lengthier. Many nations in central and eastern Europe are deeply divided over the wisdom of allowing Nato to attack Yugoslavia.

Bulgaria and Romania share Yugoslavia's Orthodox Christian faith, and other ties of history and culture bind the Balkan nations together. Even Catholic Hungary has to take into account the fate of more than 300,000 ethnic Hungarians in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, whose capital Novi Sad has suffered sustained and heavy Nato attack.

Opinion polls in Bulgaria show a 60 per cent majority opposed to Nato air raids on Yugoslavia. Seventy per cent of Hungarians oppose granting Nato use of Hungarian territory in a ground offensive on Yugoslavia, says a poll in the newspaper Nepszabadsag.

The hopes of the Hungarian government that Vojvodina, and their ethnic cousins, would escape Nato attack have been brushed aside. The bombing of Novi Sad, and a missile landing in a Sofia suburb, show that war has its own relentless logic.