A DIPLOMATIC confrontation between Moscow and Western capitals over Kosovo was taking shape yesterday as a long-awaited report on the crisis from the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, stopped short of offering a green light for military intervention in the Serb province.
Britain and America none the less seized upon the report to ratchet up their threats of imminent Nato air strikes. They said it demonstrated that the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, continues to defy UN Security Council demands for the Serbs to stop the repression of Kosovo Albanians.
James Rubin, spokesman for the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said: "It's a very strong report that makes clear Milosevic is not complying with all the requirements of the Security Council."
The indecision at the UN came as evidence emerged of more atrocities committed by the Serbs against Kosovo civilians.
In New York, Mr Annan took a call from the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, who underlined Russia's antipathy to Nato air strikes against Serbia.
Unexpectedly deep divisions also emerged between European Union foreign ministers over the plans to use force in Kosovo yesterday, with a succession of states calling for a further UN Security Council resolution before air strikes. Abel Matutes, Spain's Foreign Minister, warned that air strikes would require "a satisfactory legal basis", adding that "international law must be respected". And Lamberto Dini, the Italian Foreign Minister, said it was "too early to speak decisively of military intervention".
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, last night admitted the extent of disarray in Europe, arguing: "When we start to disagree about what is necessary the only person who is pleased is President Milosevic." That view was echoed by Wolfgang Schussel, Austrian Foreign Minister and chair of yesterday's meeting.
Tony Blair's official spokesman also rejected criticism about the need for a fresh UN mandate for an attack.
The disarray developed during discussions which had been expected to step up the pressure on the Serb leader. Despite another tough warning from Mr Cook, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg made it clear they wanted a further UN resolution authorising air strikes.
In the UN report Mr Annan refrained from declaring whether President Milosovic had violated the UN resolutions. Mr Annan concluded by emphasising the need for progress towards a political settlement in Kosovo. "While I fully share the sense of indignation and revulsion at what has been happening in Kosovo, the international community must never lose sight of the ultimate need for a comprehensive political solution," he wrote,
Hopes for progress were focused yesterday on a visit to Belgrade by Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy of President Bill Clinton. A US official accompanying him said Mr Holbrooke had come to "tell President Milosovic that there was not the slightest doubt in anybody's mind that there would be a military action if he did not comply with the UN resolution".
Mr Holbrooke's visit came as more horrifying evidence emerged of last week's atrocities in the village of Micitiv, in southern Kosovo, where a couple were burned alive in their home by the police. The dead man's brother, Ymer Ndrecaj, had watched it all from a hillside.
"First the police were shelling the house," he explained, as what appeared to be bone fragments were pulled from the ashes. "Then they started the fire. My brother and his wife were disabled and too infirm to run away. We could hear them screaming to get out. I ran away because I would be cut into pieces if they caught me." Serbia has repeatedly denied involvement in any atrocities.
The caution at the UN expressed by Mr Annan betrays deep anxiety about the possible fall-out from air strikes. There is concern that while military action may play well politically for many Western governments, the task of clearing up afterwards would then be left to UN peace-keepers.
With intelligence provided by diplomats in Kosovo as well as observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Mr Annan suggested that Serb military activity "seemed to wind down in the last days of September".
But several passages in the Annan report offered sustenance to those pushing for air strikes. In language that could be interpreted by some as the necessary trigger for military action, he said that the turmoil in Kosovo "constitutes a threat to peace and security in the region".
While noting that the Kosovo Albanian forces may be guilty of atrocities, Mr Annan added that it was "clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the great majority of such acts have been committed by [the] security forces".
In Washington, US officials insisted the report demonstrated non-compliance by Belgrade with the will of the Security Council. The report, according to one official, showed Mr Milosevic's "utter failure to comply with the requirements set in the Security Council resolution".
As British ministers continued to indicate their readiness for action, the Cabinet was told that the military options were at "an advanced stage".
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The UK, in concert with others, will not hesitate to use force if that is the only way to deal with the extreme humanitarian distress being caused there."
Mr Cook said: "We are getting ready for Nato action and later this week we will expect a decision to be taken. Milosevic has only a few days this week to listen to the international community."
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