Warplanes stand by to bomb Serbs

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The Independent Online
AS POLITICAL and military pressure on the Serbs mounts, Nato meets today in Brussels to put warplanes and cruise missiles on standby to bomb key military targets in former Yugoslavia.

American B-52 bombers, which could be used to launch missiles at Serb air defences, were flown to a base in England yesterday in a well-publicised manoeuvre to demonstrate that the allies are poised to strike. At the same time as the Nato meeting, the Government is holding an emergency session of the Cabinet in London today after Tony Blair's return from China. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, flies to Brussels tomorrow for a meeting with Javier Solana, Secretary-General of Nato.

The 16 Nato governments must approve the necessary "activation order" unanimously. Question marks over the commitment of Germany and Italy complicated efforts to achieve consensus during the weekend, but diplomats believed neither country would block the order when ambassadors meet today. Nato's supreme commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, warned of "devastating" military consequences for the Serbs if the strikes go ahead.

The arrival of the US bombers was a symbol of allied readiness to attack Serbian targets over Kosovo, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said. "President Milosevic has not recognised anything other than overwhelming force. He will have seen the pictures of the B-52s pre-positioning themselves at RAF Fairford."

Mr Cook rejected criticism that Nato was "dithering" because it was split over action on Kosovo. "There is now a unity and consensus across Nato that if Richard Holbrooke's [the US envoy] mission does not produce results, there will be military action."

But, as part of a twin-track strategy, the West is also offering Slobodan Milosevic an escape route. Belgrade is being pressed to accept a three- year autonomy deal for Kosovo overseen by a new international monitoring presence. Indications from Belgrade are that ways of verifying the Serb President's commitments were the main sticking-point.

Mr Holbrooke had talks with Mr Milosevic throughout Saturday. And after seven hours of discussions yesterday, talks broke up only to resume mid- evening and continue into the early hours of this morning.

Though Nato is still likely to issue the activation order for its forces, taking them to the brink of military action, the length and detail of the negotiations which Mr Holbrooke has undertaken with Mr Milosevic suggests that he is making headway in Belgrade, according to some US diplomats. But Mr Holbrooke had argued since the beginning of talks that until Nato showed it was ready to go to the brink, Mr Milosevic would not compromise.

The alliance nations are already thinking beyond this stage. The critical issue upon which America, Britain, France and Germany have been taking advice is how to push for a force in Kosovo itself. In the event that Mr Milosevic agrees to a withdrawal of his forces from the province and to other aspects of a plan proposed by the six-nation Contact Group, it is imperative to monitor and verify that agreement, prevent Mr Milosevic from backsliding, contain any conflicts and assist the humanitarian effort over the winter.

What might seem like the most obvious answer - a United Nations-run peacekeeping force - is probably the least likely. The unhappy experience of Unprofor, the UN force in Bosnia, has put the leading military powers off such a solution.

That leaves two other possibilities, at different ends of the spectrum. Firstly, the West could reinforce the existing diplomatic monitors in Kosovo. This could be supplemented with a lightly armed police presence under the aegis of Nato or the Western European Union, the defence body with links to the EU.

The other alternative is a Nato-led military force like I-For, the Intervention Force which was inserted into Bosnia after the Dayton Peace Accords. This force, which is still present in Bosnia as the 32,000 strong Stabilisation Force, was heavily armed, composed of Nato members including a large US presence, and could have fought its way out of trouble.