Yeltsin opposes force in Kosovo

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PRESIDENT BORIS Yeltsin signalled yesterday that Russia would oppose any outside military intervention in Serbia's Kosovo province.

On a visit to Bonn, Mr Yeltsin and ministers accompanying him also spoke out against economic sanctions imposed by the European Union this week on Belgrade, though Moscow did pledge to use its influence with President Slobodan Milosevic.

"A further escalation of the tensions and interference from outside forces threaten to broaden the conflict beyond the borders," Mr Yeltsin said. "That leads to destabilisation of the Balkans, with unforeseen consequences for the whole of Europe."

While refusing to be drawn into discussions about Russia's proposed solution, President Yeltsin offered to lean on Belgrade. His German host, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said the Russian President was prepared to "use his big influence in Belgrade so the bloodshed ends as quickly as possible".

Mr Yeltsin refused to divulge what he would be saying to Mr Milosevic. "The more softly I speak, the better the chances of a meeting," he said. "We will meet and discuss how to get out of this situation without getting into a big war."

Throughout the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia, Moscow tried to shield the Serbs from Western anger, and it seems set to pursue the same policy over Kosovo. Germany's efforts to gain Russian support for concerted action in the Balkans appear to have had little success. Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, even declared that Moscow would not be joining the latest EU sanctions against Belgrade. The EU and the United States on Monday slapped a ban on all investments in Serbia.

In Brussels, Nato defence ministers are to meet tomorrow for discussions certain to be dominated by Kosovo. It is expected they will order the military to start looking at direct intervention in Kosovo.

Alarmed by the mounting violence in Kosovo, Nato may be willing to consider intervening in Kosovo's airspace, and imposing a "no fly" zone, a senior alliance diplomat said yesterday.

Although Russian opposition means the UN Security Council is unlikely to adopt any resolution authorising intervention, Nato officials say there are other legal bases for conducting such an operation, though they are vague about exactly what they are. "If we can't get that resolution, we'll have to find another legal basis to act, if action is necessary," said one senior official.

In a diplomatic blow to Belgrade, Balkan foreign ministers from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey and Serbia's traditional ally, Greece, meeting in Istanbul, condemned Serbia's police action in Kosovo and endorsed the EU sanctions.

In Albania, the number of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing to northern Albania to escape violence in Kosovo appeared to have stabilised at around 200 to 300 people per day, well down on levels when the influx started 10 days ago. The total number of refugees who have fled military operations by Serbian security forces is estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000.