War In The Balkans: Nato threatens `nights of fire' as forces move to defend refugees

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The Independent Online
THE STAKES have been raised again in this, the most cut-throat of contests. As the Serbs yesterday continued their ferociously paced expulsion of the Kosovo Albanian population, Nato promised to unleash unrelenting bombing waves upon Yugoslavia.

The improving weather is on the side of the air campaign; the Serbian leadership and government infrastructure are now top of the Nato hit-list. President Slobodan Milosevic's palace in Belgrade may even be targeted, said the German Defence Minister, Rudolph Scharping.

Last night more bombing missions took place against Belgrade, which Nato was initially reluctant to target. The aim is to disrupt President Milosevic's war machine by destroying fuel and transport links. Also hit were the headquarters of the internal security services, MUP, which have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Kosovo.

Nato's war aims are also toughening. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, declared yesterday that Nato troops will set up and protect refugee sanctuaries on the Macedonia side of the Kosovo border. Nato is also sending 6,000 troops to alleviate the misery of refugees in Albania.

This is widely seen as a precursor to the deployment of ground troops inside Kosovo itself, if only to protect the columns of refugees still haemorrhaging from the Serbs' war on the population.

The significant hardening of Nato policy was signalled by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who said that President Milosevic must withdraw all his forces from Kosovo in any future peace deal. The Rambouillet agreement only required partial withdrawal.

But despite Nato's threats and tough talking, tens of thousands of frightened refugees emerged from Kosovo yesterday, with Serb forces firing over their heads. This weekend, the Albanian Prime Minister, Pandeli Majko, described the exodus as a "biblical deluge", and a "new Holocaust".

At last there are signs that Nato's humanitarian plan to rescue the refugees from hunger, disease and death is swinging into action. Until now, sheer pressure of numbers - some 435,000 Albanians have fled or been forced out of Kosovo into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro - and the international community's slow response to the crisis have simply meant the choking up of an entirely inadequate system. With the Macedonian border sealed until guarantees of international aid are given, long columns of hungry, cold, exhausted and in some cases dying refugees have built up just inside Kosovo.

The Nato spokesman Jamie Shea said yesterday that 250,000 Albanians were waiting just inside Kosovo with no food or shelter. The tens of thousands who have crossed the border still sit in squalor in the midst of muddy fields, while babies and old men and women die around them.

Albania is already caring for 100,000 refugees, on the condition that international assistance is provided. The misery on the Macedonian border is also on the point of being tackled. Mr Cook said yesterday that Macedonia had agreed that an internationally run sanctuary for up to 100,000 refugees could be set up on its territory. A massive tented city is planned at Bradze airfield near the Kosovo border. "It's meant to be a safe passage out of the killing fields," a senior Foreign Office source said last night. "We need to get these people away from the death squads and prevent them from dying in the mud."

Other steps are being taken to release the pressure. Britain would appear to have been on the receiving end of some US persuasion. Yesterday it offered to take "some thousands" of refugees, only hours after Tony Blair warned such an initiative constituted "a policy of despair", in that it could undermine the central aim of returning the Albanian refugees to their homes.

Ms Albright said the European Union might fly as many as 100,000 refugees out of the region with "several thousand" going to the United States. But she recognised the Prime Minister's misgivings, insisting any removal must be temporary.

"It's an ugly scene, how they're being pushed out of their country," said Ms Albright. "It's important for them not to be too far away from Kosovo so they can return."

With one of the big questions being how far America is prepared to go to force that return, she said the US was determined to press ahead with its air attack until Mr Milosevic "stopped the slaughter".

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