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War In The Balkans: Military Options - First British wave will be airborne

TWO OPTIONS are now being considered for using British airborne forces to fly ahead of the rest of the Kosovo Force once the military agreement is finally signed with the Serbs and the peace-keeping mission rolls into the Yugoslav province.

Several Nato countries, including Germany and France, are thinking of performing a high-profile parachute drop into their designated areas of operation. But for the British, despite a certain degree of political pressure from London to adopt a similar high-profile strategy to drop on to the much-bombed Pristina airport, the planning is focusing more on a helicopter-borne approach, known in the Army as a tactical air landing operation.

The two operations being studied are to use Chinook and Puma helicopters to fly airborne forces to Pristina or to seize and make secure the six- mile pass that runs from Deneral Jankovic, which is less than a mile from the border between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo to Kacanik.

This stretch of route from the border to Pristina, where the British are to be based, has steep mountains on either side and also contains two tunnels, four large bridges and about 10 smaller ones. The whole of 4th Armoured Brigade with more than 1,000 vehicles, including Challenger tanks, self-propelled artillery, other armoured vehicles, trucks and Land Rovers, has to go through the six-mile pass. It is crucial to the planning that the tunnels and bridges are made secure and guarded before the massive convoy starts to cross into Kosovo.

The units earmarked for either of these roles are the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, now training at Petrovec, and the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, who began flying into Macedonia today. They will use eight Chinooks and six Pumas. Under the tactical air landing system, the soldiers are expected to move quickly out of the helicopters and to take up positions, ready for counter-attack if there is a threat of offensive action.

At present, the bridges and tunnels are heavily mined and booby-trapped, but so far the Serbs have made no move to detonate the explosives to prevent the advance into Kosovo of the Nato-led forces. If they were to blow up the four main bridges, it would take a long time for the Royal Engineers to replace them. If the small bridges were blown, the Sappers will have bridge-laying equipment to repair the damage fairly rapidly.

This is a pooled report