War in the Balkans: Nato `cannot help trapped Albanians'

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has admitted Nato is powerless to help 850,000 displaced Albanians now trapped in the hills and forests of Kosovo and coming under Serb attack.

Mr Blair said yesterday that Nato warplanes had hit tanks and armoured vehicles in Kosovo used in President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing, but he conceded that the alliance could do little for the refugees except to press on with its four-week air war.

"We're deeply worried about the people inside Kosovo. The only chance they have got, however, is [for us] to make our campaign successful. There is literally nothing more that they need than making sure that our campaign is successful."

The Prime Minister appeared to spell out Nato's war aims in the clearest terms yet when he said said the air campaign would continue until Mr Milosevic "steps down".

Describing the air war as a "just cause" Mr Blair suggested no deal could be struck with Mr Milosevic. Asked what solution there might be to the Balkan impasse, he replied: "I see the solution very simply. We carry on until he [Mr Milosevic] does step down. He has got to yield to Nato demands."

Nato's official war aims do not extend to the removal of the Yugoslav President, and aides to the Prime Minister later described his words as a verbal slip. A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "He is not signalling a new military objective. He is signalling that Milosevic must step down from what he is doing in Kosovo."

Asked in Washington about Mr Blair's statement, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said the removal of Mr Milosevic was not "a goal of US policy" and that there must have been a "garble" in what Mr Blair said.

Jamie Shea, Nato's spokesman, said simply that the air campaign will continue until the Yugoslav President "backs down". One source said those were the words that Mr Blair had meant to use.

However, the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, appeared to agree with Mr Blair. In an interview with the International Herald Tribune he called for an end, in the long-term, to Mr Milosevic's rule.

Mr Vedrine said: "Our general goal is to see ex-Yugoslavia become democratic. That means a change of regime".

Mr Blair declined to rule out the use of ground troops at a later stage, while holding out little prospect of the immediate relief of the displaced Albanians trapped inside Kosovo.

"To see people herded on to trains and taken away from their homes and to hear the stories the refugees have come back from Kosovo with - and heaven only knows what we shall find when we go into Kosovo - to hear those is to either awaken our conscience and make us act, or it is to say we have no conscience and no will to act in the face of something appalling and wrong".

The Prime Minister said the alliance had held together because of public support. People had seen television footage of "appalling scenes of ethnic cleansing, women raped, young men taken out and murdered," he said. "My generation never thought to see these scenes in Europe again".

On ground troops, the Prime Minister made a distinction between a land force which had to fight its way into Kosovo and one which was uninvited but largely unopposed by the Serbs. "We have always made clear the difficulties of putting in ground forces as a land force invasion against undegraded, organised Serb resistance," he said.

"We've also equally made it clear that the international military force is there to allow people back to their homes.

"So it's very important people realise our position on that remains as it is. But of courseMilosevic doesn't have some sort of veto on what we do."

Hints that Nato is hardening its stand against Mr Milosevic follow comments at the weekend by the US President, Bill Clinton, in which he denounced the "unspeakable violence of Europe's worst demagogue".