War in the Balkans: Canada prepares ground troops

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THE FIRST indications that Nato might be planning to put ground forces into Kosovo came last night as the alliance confronted the massive outflow of refugees.

The Canadian government said it was considering the possibility that ground forces might go into Yugoslavia even without a peace agreement. It was the first time a Nato government has publicly acknowledged it might be necessary for troops to fight their way in to return and resettle refugees.

"The plan has been ... to bring the Yugoslav government to the table, to have a peace plan and, on that basis, for ground troops to then go in to ensure the security of the people of Kosovo," said Art Eggleton, the Defence Minister.

"Now, if that's not going to be possible, and I think as we see with each day the Milosevic government is not indicating they're favourable to doing that, then certainly Nato has to look at other options," he added. "And the military planners and the Canadian military are in the course of looking at other options as to where ground troops might be involved."

Earlier the United States intervened in an effort to free three US soldiers, captured on the border between Albania and Kosovo last week. The initiative, by Spyros Kyprianou, the acting President of Cyprus, sparked concerns in Washington that it would be outflanked diplomatically as it seeks to press on with the air war against Yugoslavia.

Mr Kyprianou said Slobodan Milosevic "has conveyed to me his willingness to discuss the issue of releasing the three American captives and to hand them over to us". He left Larnaca airport for Athens and then Belgrade yesterday. Greece was expected to provide an aircraft to fly him to the Yugoslav capital, but Mr Kyprianou was asked by the US to delay his departure.

The mission presented Nato with a difficult decision about whether to carry on bombing even as Mr Kyprianou was on his way to Belgrade. He requested a 24-hour ceasefire. The US warned him not to travel last night, and said it wanted to talk to him before he left. The allies were also scrambling to ensure that the meeting did not turn into an occasion for Mr Milosevic to negotiate over the conflict.

Cyprus has sided with Belgrade in its war with Nato and Mr Kyprianou said he hoped his visit could help to broker an end to the conflict. "I believe, I hope, my mission will succeed. If it does I think it will help improve the climate, it will satisfy the American people ... and will be proof of the Yugoslavian President's commitment to peaceful processes," he said.

Cyprus and Yugoslavia were both founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Mr Kyprianou had close ties to Belgrade when he was President from 1978 to 1988.

Mr Kyprianou said there might be preconditions for the release of the soldiers, however, which could be a stumbling block for any deal. In particular, Nato ruled out any attempt to free the men by trading them for an end to the bombing of Yugoslavia. "As for paying a price, of course not, the mission goes on," said Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman.

The US was very cautious, saying there had been "some contact" with Mr Kyprianou but playing down hopes of a rapid breakthrough.