West quits Kosovo and prepares to attack

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The Independent Online
THE COLLAPSE of the Kosovo peace talks in Paris has brought Nato and the Serbs once again to the brink of open war. As the Foreign Office last night urged all Britons to leave Yugoslavia, the OSCE monitoring organisation - fearful that the Serbs might take their unarmed personnel hostage in the event of a Nato bombardment - ordered all staff to leave Kosovo at once.

The Kosovo delegation to the Paris peace talks, which signed the autonomy agreement on Thursday night in the absence of the Serbs, was yesterday on its way to Nato headquarters in Brussels for a briefing on the air offensive that might be opened against Belgrade by next weekend.

Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, warned the Serbs that "the military clock is ticking" and said their behaviour had been appalling.

Underlining Nato's determination, President Bill Clinton said last night: "Make no mistake, if we and our allies do not have the will to act there will be more massacres. In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a licence to kill."

The conflict in the Balkans "threatens our national interest," he said. "I think that whatever threshold they need to cross has been crossed." Earlier, the President had met congressional leaders who left convinced that military action was around the corner. "I think we will be going to bombing pretty soon," said Senator Joe Biden.

American and French diplomats suggested last night that the Serbs would be given until Wednesday to change their minds and sign the agreement, which would give Kosovo Albanians their own parliament and constitution and a strong measure of local autonomy.

But the fierce rejection of the agreement by the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, who said that the Yugoslav armed forces would fight Nato to defend their country if it came under attack, appeared to rule out any 11th-hour change of heart in Belgrade.

Nato sources in Paris said that initial air strikes - using up to 50 cruise missiles - would probably target communications centres, anti-aircraft missile defences, military barracks and special police headquarters inside Kosovo, after which the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, would be given 24 hours to agree to sign the autonomy agreement. Failure to comply would lead to strikes against military targets around Belgrade.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, yesterday "solemnly" warned the Belgrade authorities against any military offensive against Kosovo Albanians and threatened the "gravest consequences" if the monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe were prevented from leaving.

However, threats have been so over-brandished by Mr Cook and Mr Vedrine over the past two months that the only thing likely to persuade Mr Milosevic to accept 28,000 Nato peacekeeping troops inside Kosovo would be advice from his own military commanders to give way. Since the Yugoslav President's recent purge of the army hierarchy, that is unlikely to be forthcoming.

In a statement issued in Paris and London, Mr Cook and Mr Vedrine said the Kosovo delegation's signature on the autonomy agreement meant they had "seized the opportunity" of peace. The Yugoslav delegation, on the other hand, had "tried to unravel" the accords.

In the original Rambouillet talks last month, Mr Milutinovic had accepted the autonomy clauses but rejected the military implementation agreement which called for the Nato force in Kosovo. In Paris last week, he proposed substantial amendments to the autonomy proposals which he had earlier agreed - while still refusing to countenance foreign troops on Serbian territory.

As Western embassy staff in Belgrade were packing their bags yesterday, the 1,375 OSCE verifiers were preparing to leave Kosovo as soon as possible - which in practice means by road convoy this morning.

William Walker, the OSCE mission chief in Pristina, said he was confident the authorities would allow the verifiers to leave as promised. He said the mission was shutting down temporarily because the verifiers could no longer do their work in safety, and because "other steps are going to have to be taken" to achieve peace.

He told President Milosevic that the mission "represented the last real chance of a peaceful solution without the force of arms". Many fear the first result will be an increased Yugoslav offensive in the countryside. "I'm hoping the government and the KLA will understand that the answer to the problem here is not more violence," Mr Walker said. But he added: "I am very worried about the people we leave behind." Albanians fear they may also suffer retribution for any Nato air strikes, and the local leadership held an "emotional meeting" with Mr Walker yesterday. "I understand they might feel abandoned," he declared, but he promised the international community would still be watching.