BRITISH PARATROOPS and Gurkhas are poised to enter Kosovo today, spearheading a 40-mile column of Nato tanks and military vehicles that will fan out across the province as the Serbs withdraw.
"We shall be off quite soon," General Sir Michael Jackson, commander of Nato forces in Macedonia, said last night. General Jackson said that his forces would be "robust and even-handed" in their actions towards "all ethnic groupings" inside Kosovo. Warning the Albanian rebel fighters not to take advantage of the Serbian withdrawal he added: "It would be very stupid for the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] to interfere with the withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces. We don't want any more loss of life."
The advance party will secure the heavily mined stretch of road from the Macedonian border to the town of Kacanik, along which most of the foreign troops moving into Kosovo will pass over the next days and weeks.
The final diplomatic hurdle for peace in Kosovo was cleared at the United Nations last night, after the Security Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution enshrining the peace agreement in Kosovo. China abstained.
This cleared the way for Nato peace-keeping troops to enter the province and for the UN itself to assume responsibilities for a massive programme of reconstruction.
Hours earlier, Javier Solana, Nato's Secretary-General, confirmed the start of the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo in a letter that was faxed to his UN counterpart in New York, Kofi Annan.
In London the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said "good has triumphed over evil. Justice has overcome barbarism. And the values of civilisation have prevailed".
He implicitly warned Serbia that it would be excluded from the planned post-war aid and reconstruction programme in the Balkans while President Slobodan Milosevic was at the helm. "You cannot expect democracies to prop up dictatorships," he said. "We want a modern democratic Serbia to be part of a modern democratic Europe. But the choice rests with Serbia."
Nato's deployment will see 48,000 British, French, German, American and Italian troops pouring across the border from Macedonia over the coming days, hard on the heels of the Serb withdrawal. It will be the the West's largest military deployment since the 1991 Gulf War.
According to the agreement Kosovo will be divided into three sectors, with the Serbs retreating first from the southern one which has been drawn to include Pristina. As they collapse back into the middle and northern sector, they will be followed by the international force, with Nato at its core, following closely behind.
Despite the imminent arrival of a huge foreign force on Yugoslav soil, President Milosevic, proclaimed the result as a great victory. "The people are the hero," he said on national television.
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