War in the Balkans: The Alliance's Strategy - Nato threat to hit Serb TV stations

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THE PROPAGANDA war over Kosovo turned into a genuine conflict yesterday, after Nato gave an ultimatum that Serbian radio and television stations would be attacked unless they offered six hours a day to Western news broadcasts.

Claiming the broadcasters in Belgrade were nothing but President Slobodan Milosevic's "instruments of propaganda and repression" which had "filled the air with lies" for years, the alliance threatened air strikes to silence them.

The only way the Yugoslav authorities would be able to save the stations would be by giving access to Western news for two blocks of three hours a day, said a Nato spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby.

The move was immediately denounced by Belgrade and also caused consternation in some neutral countries.

Nato took advantage of the continuing good weather yesterday to make air strikes onmore conventional enemy targets - hitting ground formations, bridges, barracks and, it is believed, tanks and armoured formations.

Air Commodore Wilby said: "We continue to systematically degrade and to diminish the military, paramilitary and special forces of the former Republic of Yugoslavia."

Almost 400 missions were flown over Yugoslavia and Kosovo and at least one SA6 surface-to-air missile was fired by the Serbs. A MiG 29 fighter took off but returned quickly to base without engaging Nato warplanes. RAF Harriers GR7s were involved in attacks on Serbian ground troops in Kosovo. The Pentagon confirmed an unmanned US reconnaissance plane had crashed.

Nato missiles struck in the heart of Belgrade while nearly a thousand people listened to rock music on the city's main bridge as a gesture of defiance.

Serbian television stated that a fuel depot and some homes were destroyed in a missile attack near Kraljevo, 100 miles south of Belgrade. Yugoslav media also said residential areas were hit when missiles landed on Cuprija, in the south of the country. A power station, sports hall and supermarket were damaged.

Air Commodore Wilby said all the targets hit had been of "military significance" and denied that Nato had been responsible for the widespread destruction witnessed by journalists yesterday in Pristina.

Nato faced fresh problems with its war strategy with the fear that refugees driven back into Kosovo will be used as human shields by Serbian forces. The Nato secretary- general, Javier Solana, said one reason President Milosevic had shut the border crossings "could be because he is trying to use people as human shields in case the alliance's military action is concentrated more on the ground".

The alliance is already having difficulties in hitting ground targets. The Yugoslav army is hiding its tanks and heavy guns and also placing them in heavily populated areas.

At the same time, ethnic cleansing is continuing by soldiers and paramilitary units on foot, so air attacks run the risk of civilian casualties.

A Nato spokesman, Jamie Shea, said: "It's not enough for the Serb units to stop firing. A lot of the violence that we see going on in Kosovo is not being done by tanks and artillery, it's being done by paramilitary units or armed civilians. That's why we have always made it clear that a ceasefire, as such, is not sufficient."

Despite President Milosevic's declaration of a ceasefire, Serbian forces were still involved in fighting the Kosovo Liberation Army, Nato spokesmen claimed. There was evidence that "mop-up" operations were still being conducted in isolated areas by the Serbs and also signs that the KLA had mounted some counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, it would appear that the Serbian units were continuing to adopt a "defensive and concealed posture".

Tony Blair yesterday repeated the pledge that Nato would continue military action until Serbia complies with its demand to halt its attack on Albanian civilians in Kosovo. He said: "We are in a situation where we are coping, dealing with those refugees who have crossed the border into Macedonia and Albania. We are coping with that in difficult circumstances but we're getting that job done... And we're obviously concerned about what Milosevic's people may be doing to them, as to whether they are being fed properly, looked after properly; so that's our main point of concern."