War in the Balkans: Nato Troops - Force of 8,000 is sent into Albania

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NATO ANNOUNCED it is sending 8,000 troops to the Balkans to aid the flood of refugees from Kosovo. The alliance said Operation Allied Harbour will be a co-ordinated military exercise involving 14 countries, controlled by a "mobile force land headquarters" based in Albania.

The project, due to start by the beginning of next week, was put together after an emergency meeting of the allied governments. Food, medicine, tents and other emergency supplies will be distributed to the thousands of Kosovars pouring into Albania while the troops will be used to construct "sanctuaries" for them to stay in. The troops will be sent as Allied Command Europe Mobile Force Land (ACE). Based at Heidelberg, Germany, it is commanded by British Major General John Reith, formerly of The Parachute Regiment. The Ministry of Defence said it was "speculation" that British paratroopers would be involved in the mission.

Western strategists see the move as crucial to ease the burden being placed on the poor and politically unstable governments of Albania and Macedonia, which have received the majority of the exodus. The safe havens in Albania, it is hoped, will syphon off some of the Kosovars now in Macedonia. The Slav dominated government there is unsympathetic to its own Albanian minority and increasingly hostile to Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Its officials and police have been accused of forcibly moving refugees from camps.

The Macedonian government is also becoming hostile to the idea of allowing any more Nato troops on to its territory, suspecting that they would play a key part in a ground offensive against the Serbs in Kosovo. Nato officials yesterday denied that Allied Harbour troops would be used as a "Trojan horse" for a land war in Kosovo.

At present, there are 12,000 allied troops, of whom 4,800 are British, in Macedonia. There is a small, unspecified number of allied troops in Albania and at the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki, the latter for logistical support. In addition there are special forces detachments from Nato countries, incuding the SAS, inside Kosovo.