War In The Balkans: Nato Ground Force - Troops in a race against the clock

War in the Balkans: Nato Ground Force
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BY ANNOUNCING plans to assemble a 50,000-strong ground force, Nato has at last heeded what independent analysts have been warning for weeks: if the air campaign didn't crack President Milosevic and the refugees were to start returning by winter, a land force would have to be in place to go into Kosovo - opposed or unopposed - by the start of August. If so, the build-up had to start now.

But although Nato's ambassadors are expected this week to approve the proposals sanctioned by the alliance's military committee last Friday, many aspects of the plan remain unclear - who will provide the extra troops, what sort of forces they will be, and exactly where they will be deployed.

As of now around 22,000 allied ground troops are "in theatre", a total not far short of the 28,000-strong K-For originally envisaged had there been a peaceful, negotiated outcome to the crisis. Exactly 13,830, according to the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea yesterday, are in Macedonia, and over 8,000 in Albania.

Under plans already going ahead, strength in Macedonia will be increased to 16,000, the maximum permitted under Nato's present agreement with Skopje. This would still leave Britain, France and Germany as the biggest contributors, with smaller contingents from Italy, Canada and other allies. Any increase from 16,000 will have to be agreed by the highly edgy Macedonian government, which has all along insisted its territory could not serve as launch pad for a ground invasion.

The bulk of Nato's strength in Albania is a 6,000-strong US force (whose firepower includes the vaunted but thus far unused 22 Apache helicopters), supplemented by smaller French and Italian contingents.

Though no details have emerged of the composition of the enlarged force - the equivalent of roughly three divisions - its backbone is likely to be British, French and American, with each of the three countries providing at least 10,000 men, 30,000 or more in all.

But it is unclear whether the remaining 20,000-odd would come entirely from Nato members, or whether they would include soldiers from other countries - notably Russia.

But if the force's entry into Kosovo is without the express consent of the Yugoslav President, then its leading and cutting edge will be provided by Britain, France and the US. Germany is adamant its soldiers cannot and will not take part in even a partially opposed invasion. The same goes for several other Nato members, among them, almost certainly, Italy.

In fact the force need not be exclusively massed in Albania and Macedonia. With the Yugoslav army dug in to defend the few easy entry points into the province, the prime early need is for highly air-mobile forces, which could be ferried in from ships in the Adriatic, or from Hungary and Italy.

Speed is of the essence, analysts say, rather than new quantities of heavy armour on top of what is already stationed in Macedonia.