War In The Balkans: Reinforcements - Nato increases air force in Balkans to 1,200 planes

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN IS to boost its air force strength in the Kosovo conflict by more than 40 per cent as part of a massive escalation of Nato's strike power.

Four extra Tornados, four Harriers and one Tristar will increase the number of RAF aircraft to 29, along with seven Royal Navy Sea Harriers. At present, 12 Tornados are based at the Gioia del Colle airfield in Italy, with a further eight at RAF Bruggen in Germany.

The announcement of extra British planes came as Nato's Supreme Commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, builds up a massive air armada to continue attacking the Serbian military machine. He has asked Nato countries for another 400 planes to take the total number of aircraft to around 1,200.

The fresh batch is likely to be used along new bomb corridors that have become accessible to Nato since Romania and Hungary agreed to open their air space to Nato last week. The agreements will allow allied commanders more flexibility in missions aimed at the heart of Serbia and Kosovo.

George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, announced the British deployment during a visit to Gioia del Colle yesterday afternoon. From there he flew to the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, stationed in the Adriatic. Today, he is expected to fly to Tirana to meet the Albanian President, Rexhap Mejdani, and his government, as well as visiting allied troops and a refugee camp.

Invincible, along with other British ships in the area, HMS Newcastle, Iron Duke and the submarine Splendid, will play a key role in enforcing any future naval blockade to block Yugoslavia's fuel supplies.

Mr Robertson was accompanied on the trip by the shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard, the Tory defence spokesman John Maples, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on defence and foreign affairs Menzies Campbell, and Bruce George, chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

Nato is now at the end of the sixth week of bombardment of Yugoslavia. Operation Desert Storm, the land war in the Gulf in 1991, began with six weeks of bombing, but Nato commanders insist that several more weeks of air strikes will be needed before troops can be sent into Kosovo.

Mr Robertson admitted that the allies had initially believed that this prolonged campaign will not be necessary. "We hoped for a short campaign, we hoped Milosevic would be more rational and not have taken on the whole of Nato. But he has miscalculated. He may be obstinate enough, cussed enough or suicidal enough to think Nato will go away, but not all his people feel the same way. You can carpet bomb Serbia into submission in a few days given the air power we have. But carpet bombing is not legal or morally justified."

The Secretary of State criticised the "smart alecs, armchair generals, and massed regiments of columnists" who criticised the allied war efforts with the benefit of hindsight. He added: "Very soon we shall be in Kosovo. I feel what we uncover will horrify people and prove all of this justified."

Asked whether a naval blockade of Montenegro, which together with Serbia makes up Yugoslavia, would lead to a confrontation with Russia, Mr Robertson said: "We'll see, but the Russians have not tried to provoke any confrontation up until now."