THE PROSPECT of Nato air strikes against Yugoslavia moved closer yesterday as Washington accused President Slobodan Milosevic of worsening the crisis in Kosovo and said Belgrade was still not complying with UN resolutions.
After delivering a warning that tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees risked freezing or starving to death in the fierce Balkan winter, President Bill Clinton said that continuing violence in the Serb-ruled province could ignite the whole region.
In Kosovo, the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, said Serbian police units were still "all over the place" in spite of UN demands for a pull- back.
"The police are getting ready for winter, which suggests they are going to stay a long time and make the return [of Kosovo refugees] even more difficult," he said. "There isn't much here we have seen that's encouraging".
Leaving Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, Mr Holbrooke said he had received a "grim briefing" on the humanitarian situation in the Albanian- majority province of two million.
"There are still huge numbers of refugees up in the hills," he told reporters. "People have come back to their houses, but the houses are wrecked, without walls or roofs."
About 280,000 civilians have been driven from their homes in Kosovo during the conflict. Between 800 and 1,500 lives have been lost since fighting began in March between the separatist Kosovo forces and Serbian security units.
Mr Holbrooke sent this message to Mr Milosevic: "If he thinks Nato is bluffing, if he wants to take that risk, all I can do is convey to him ... the seriousness of the situation." Mr Holbrooke was having a second round of talks with Mr Milosevic in Belgrade last night.
Tony Blair, who is visiting China, conferred for 20 minutes with Mr Clinton by phone. Officials said they still held out hopes for a diplomatic solution but remained determined to order strikes if necessary. "The outcome depends entirely on President Milosevic," a spokesman for Mr Blair said.
Muddying the picture was rhetoric from Moscow warning against air strikes. The Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, saidMoscow "would definitely use its right of veto" in the Security Council against any resolution authorising outside intervention.
"A military strike will not help normalise the situation but will have the opposite effect," he added. China also added its voice to those opposing strikes.
Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, who is visiting the Middle East, is expected at Nato headquarters in Brussels tomorrow to confer on a possible decision on military action.
She is expected to meet foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group on Kosovo. High on her agenda will be attempts to appease Russia's opposition to air strikes. "We want as far as possible to move in step with Russia," a Western diplomat said.
Spain and Germany reiterated unwillingness to support strikes unless a new UN resolution is passed at the Security Council. But, with Russian and Chinese opposition, that prospect seems far-fetched.
As the Security Council met last night to debate Kosovo, Britain and the United States insisted that a report from the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, shows that Mr Milosevic has yet to obey resolutions calling for a ceasefire and a return of refugees to their Kosovo homes.
In his report, submitted to the council on Monday, Mr Annan declined to make any formal judgement on whether Mr Milosevic had adequately responded to the latest UN resolution on Kosovo calling for an end to the eight- month conflict. But his text included several references to cruel repression of ethnic Albanians carried out since the adoption of the resolution on 23 September.
Britain, the holder of the UN presidency, sought to underline Mr Annan's harsh words, which may guide a pending decision on whether Nato makes air strikes against Serb military targets.
"We didn't ask Mr Annan to take a line," one British source said. "We asked for a narrative and that is what we got. And it makes very alarming reading."
However, no further action was expected last night from the council, which remains deeply divided.
The text of the latest resolution could be seen as at least an orange light to military action. It stops short of authorising the use of "all necessary means" to ensure enforcement - the UN code for such a step.
In his report, Mr Annan said he was "outraged by reports of mass killings of civilians in Kosovo, which recall the atrocities committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina".
Underscoring the "deep trauma and despair of displaced populations" in Kosovo, Mr Annan said he was concerned that the "disproportionate use of force and actions of the security forces are designed to terrorise and subjugate the population".
Mr Annan went on: "The Serbian forces have demanded the surrender of weapons and have been reported to use terror and violence against civilians to force people to flee their homes or the places where they had sought refuge, under the guise of separating them from fighters of the Kosovo Albanian paramilitary units."
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