SERBIAN PRESIDENT Slobodan Milosevic was facing a stark choice between war and peace last night as America's special envoy brought grim news to the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Belgrade had made no concession to avert air strikes.
The envoy, Richard Holbrooke was flying to Brussels and London from the Serbian capital last night after delivering a final ultimatum to Mr Milosevic to stop his offensive against the Kosovo Albanians.
But in Belgrade an official statement from the Serbian authorities last night indicated there had been no breakthrough in the talks.
The statement said that Mr Milosevic had warned the US envoy that Nato threats of air strikes "were obstructing the continuation of the political process [in Kosovo]".
Even as Western capitals awaited Mr Holbrooke's assessment of his mission to Yugoslavia, which comprises Serbia and Montenegro, prep- arations for military intervention continued at full speed.
In a sign that military action may be imminent, Britain advised its citizens to leave Yugoslavia without delay. Some 117 Britons are registered as living there, and the warning advised them to leave "in view of the increasingly volatile situation". Germany, France, Denmark and Norway also advised their nationals to depart.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is on a visit to China, said the moment to order air strikes might be approaching. "There is no doubt at all that we have to take action to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo," he said in Peking. "We have to judge the timing [of military strikes] - that is a matter for us. But I think it is pretty clear that this issue is coming to a point of urgency."
In Brussels, Mr Holbrooke was expected to meet Mrs Albright and the Secretary General of Nato, Javier Solana.
Later today, Mr Holbrooke will attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group in London.
The meeting now described as a "stock taking" exercise has itself been a measure of international diplomatic confusion over Kosovo. First it was on, then the Foreign Office said it would not take place. Last night there was another reversal, as it was announced the talks would take place, possibly at Heathrow Airport.
In Brussels, Mr Solana said it was up to Nato to make a final decision on air strikes, and that it had no need to defer to the United Nations Security Council. "Nato [allies] take decisions on their own," he said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe yesterday turned down an invitation from Serbia to send an observer mission to Kosovo.
It said Belgrade had attempted to dictate what such a mission would find, namely that the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province had taken place.
The International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia, based in the Hague, announced yesterday that Serbia had refused to allow its investigators to examine reported atrocities in Kosovo, in spite of a request from the Security Council.
Western diplomats continue to cling on to the hope that Mr Milosevic will pull back from the brink and start negotiations with Kosovo Albanian leaders on autonomy for the province. The Albanians are insisting on independence.
"At the moment we are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, told journalists.
President Clinton called on Mr Milosevic once more to respect UN resolutions and withdraw his forces.
"If he does that, he completely complies. He doesn't have to worry about military force," he said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies