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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 06:16 GMT

World: Europe

B-52 bombers head off

Eight B-52s have taken off from the west of England

Nato air and sea forces have left their bases as a strike on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis appears imminent.

Kosovo Section
With Nato under orders to unleash its missiles and planes within hours, a wave of giant US B-52 bombers left an airbase in the UK.

The eight long-range bombers, believed to be armed with cruise missiles, flew out of RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. No details have been given of their mission.

Nato's Mediterranean force, comprising eight warships, has left the Italian port of Trieste and headed out into the Adriatic.

Mark Laity: Air strikes are likely to be heavy and sustained
In Kosovo, tension rose as air raid sirens were tested in the capital, Pristina.

Cruise missiles are expected to form the first wave of attack, hitting key air defence sites to clear the way for bombing raids on Serb forces in the province itself.

[ image:  ]
After the collapse of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Kosovo, Mr Solana gave the go-ahead for air strikes against Yugoslavia on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, he appeared to close the door on any chances of a last minute halt to Nato action by reiterating on US television that air strikes would go ahead.

Saying there had been no change overnight in the behaviour of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic he said: "We are going to continue with the decision taken yesterday".

Talks offer

Reports from Moscow suggested President Milosevic wanted further talks.

John Simpson outlines a possible future deal
Yugoslavia's ambassador to Russia, who is also the brother of President Milosevic, said Belgrade was ready to hold more talks with US envoy Richard Holbrooke.

Borislav Milosevic was quoted by Russian news agency Itar-Tass as saying Yugoslavia was ready to "solve problems peacefully and continue talks on a political solution which would take into consideration the national and government interest of Yugoslavia and Serbia".

[ image:  ]
BBC Defence Correspondent Mark Laity says he thought the offer was unlikely to stop Nato strikes and that at this stage only a Serb promise to withdraw troops from Kosovo and sign the peace deal could halt military action.

Correspondents say Nato is fully aware of the capability of the Serb air defences and the campaign is expected to be tougher than those waged by the British and Americans against Iraq.

State of emergency

Listen to Nato Secretary-General Javier Solana's speech
Yugoslavia is on high alert after the government declared a state of emergency. .

The declaration, read out on state television by Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, cited an "imminent threat of war, the danger of aggression against Yugoslavia by Nato".

[ image:  ]
Military preparations are continuing, and air-raid shelters and bunkers are being prepared for civilians.

The main independent radio station, B92, was taken off the air and its editor-in-chief, Veran Matic, was detained in Belgrade. However, B92 continued broadcasting through the Internet.

Meanwhile the authorities in the neighbouring former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia have now reopened their border as thousands of refugees from the latest Serb-led offensive flee south.

They shut the border temporarily to people carrying Yugoslav passports in an effort to control the growing humanitarian crisis there, after taking in nearly 20,000 refugees.

That represents just a fraction of the 250,000 people who are reported to have been displaced since the conflict began just over a year ago.

The last of the United Nations aid workers are also reported to have been withdrawn from Kosovo.

Russian opposition

Russia has reaffirmed its opposition to the strikes and says it is ready to call an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

Robert Parsons: The Russian government is considering a number of different measures
Its Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov - back in Moscow after cancelling a visit to the US in mid-flight - warned that Russia's relations with Washington would be damaged.

He said European stability would also be harmed and the situation in Kosovo destabilised.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said planned Nato attacks were an act of aggression and ran counter to UN resolutions.

The Russian Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, warned of "a new Vietnam inside Europe".

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