British troops and tanks sent to patrol border

As refugees pour into Kosovo to flee fighting, Nato chief appeals for restraint in crackdown on Albanian insurgency
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The Independent Online

British tanks and armoured cars are being sent to Kosovo's border with Macedonia to intercept ethnic Albanian guerrillas in response to growing fears of another Balkan war.

British tanks and armoured cars are being sent to Kosovo's border with Macedonia to intercept ethnic Albanian guerrillas in response to growing fears of another Balkan war.

More than 200 British soldiers, Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armoured cars, along with an equal number of Scandinavian troops, will be deployed along the border in the next 36 hours in what is seen as a significant escalation of the involvement of Kosovo's international peace-keeping force in the Macedonian civil war.

Nato and the European Union's chief diplomats flew into Macedonia yesterday as hundreds of terrified refugees fled the government military offensive backed by the West. The ground offensive was launched on Sunday in an effort to drive the rebels out of their positions in the hills around Tetovo.

While reaffirming the alliance's support, the Nato Secretary-General, Lord George Robertson, also urged restraint as he arrived in Skopje. "They have taken the military high ground above Tetovo, now is the time to take the political high ground," he said, referring to gains claimed by the Macedonian security forces after Sunday's offensive.

"My message in Skopje is to keep the country united against its external enemy and to make sure internal unity is safeguarded. No one wants to see another Balkan bloodbath," Lord Robertson declared.

The fires were still smouldering in the hills overlooking Tetovo yesterday but otherwise Macedonia's second city, which was on the front line on Sunday, was peaceful.

The Macedonian government claims its military operation has been a success so far but it admitted yesterday that the rebel Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) was putting up fierce resistance. There was no sign of the fighting, which the authorities said was continuing.

Independent western monitors in Macedonia said the rebels had not been defeated and the conflict was far from over. The Macedonian government says it has captured a handful of rebels but so far it has not produced any prisoners in support of its claim.

"The West is guilty,'' one refugee said bitterly. "How could they allow the Macedonians to do this?'' he asked. In the hills above, smoke was pouring from his home village, which was rocketed by Macedonian helicopters on Sunday.

''They kept firing rockets while we were trying to escape,'' claimed a woman as she clutched her children. "The rockets were landing 200 metres from us.'' One man said the villagers knew nothing of a warning to leave the hills that the government said it had issued.

As well as armour on the ground, Britain will be dispatching unmanned Phoenix intelligence aircraft and 120 extra troops from the Royal Artillery to operate the planes. The Phoenixes will be used to track the guerrillas sweeping over the border to join in the fighting around Tetovo as well as to search for rebel arms caches. France and the United States are also sending similar intelligence-gathering planes.

The decision to deploy the armour and spy planes follows criticism that the Nato-led Kosovo force (K-For) is not doing enough to stem the flow of rebel fighters into Macedonia. Polish and Ukrainian forces manning the frontier have been found not to have the equipment necessary to control the ethnic Albanian NLA.

Nato forces have also issued intelligence that members of the supposedly disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are preparing to go to the aid of their beleaguered Albanian compatriots in Macedonia and there are reports of increasing amounts of arms being smuggled in. K-For stated any armed Albanian stopped at the border will be disarmed and detained.

The British and Scandinavian tanks will, say K-For officers, allow maximum response in any confrontation with Albanian rebels. It will also send a signal to the Macedonian government that K-For is serious in the aim of controlling the rebels. Major Fergus Smith, the spokesman for the multi-national brigade centre in Pristina, said: "The British brigade, along with the Scandinavian contingent is ready to move."

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