War in the Balkans: Unity breaks out among the two big allies

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AMERICA'S SHIFT towards a more active stance on ground forces in Kosovo is, in part, a response to British pressure. But there are other motives, and the decision is by no means a precursor to a ground invasion, officials emphasised yesterday.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, left Washington yesterday after talks with Madeleine Albright, his opposite number. They discussed the tensions caused by British pressure for ground forces, and sought to calm things down with a massive show of unity. "There is no rift between the United States and United Kingdom," said Mr Cook, a theme that he and the Secretary of State repeated in numerous media appearances.

But the White House left no doubt that President Bill Clinton was unhappy over London's proddings. It had wanted to choose the timing and content of talks on ground forces, a debate that has to start at some point.

The US is already committed to giving soldiers for a peace-keeping force for Kosovo, and though that is some way off, time is pressing. Next week, Nato is expected to confirm a new, boosted 50,000-strong force that would go in after a peace deal. It will then start deciding which countries contribute which forces. Thus in any case, the US would have had to start talking about its component, about 7,000 strong, in the next weeks. If the soldiers are to be in place by the winter, some must move by mid-June.

It was this which America began to discuss yesterday, with Pentagon warnings that a force needed to be in place "sooner rather than later".

Britain, however, has pressed for more. It wants the US to consider using ground troops if the Serb forces in Kosovo collapse before there is a peace deal with Belgrade - what is called a "semi-permissive" environment.

America has rejected this plan, and continues to do so. But there are signs that the debate may now move on. Britain believes that the Serb forces will collapse before winter.

"I don't see any signs that the Yugoslav army, at the present rate of attrition, is going to hold out until August, September," said Mr Cook on US television yesterday. And, he later told journalists, "We've got to be ready to move when the time is ready." That view, Britain says, is buttressed by reports of growing protests in Serbia and desertions in its army.

The Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley Clark has told the Pentagon that just having the force there would be useful. "If you prepare for ground forces ... you make Milosevic contemplate the consequences of not going along with the political objectives," of a deal, a US military source told The New York Times.