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Wednesday, January 20, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT

Analysis: OSCE hostages to fortune?

International monitors have little protection beyond their armoured vehicles

By South-east Europe analyst, Gabriel Partos

When the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, was entrusted in October with deploying a large team of verifiers in Kosovo, the mission immediately appeared to be something of a risky undertaking.

Although the threat of Nato air strikes had helped bring an end to the Serbian security forces' offensive, there was no peace settlement in place.

There wasn't even a formal ceasefire. The ethnic Albanians' guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) simply agreed to exercise restraint. The situation hasn't changed since.

[ image: The fighting has been worse than expected over the winter]
The fighting has been worse than expected over the winter
If anything, there has actually been more fighting than most observers expected to occur during the winter months. But in spite of the dangers, there has been no shortage of candidates for the OSCE's verification team.

If the deployment of verifiers has lagged behind schedule, that is due mostly to logistical and administrative problems; selecting candidates with the required experience, finding office accommodation and arranging transport all take time.

In the meantime, Nato has deployed its extraction force at a base in Kumanovo in Macedonia.

The French-led contingent includes 1,900 troops from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada.

Special forces

It is backed up by a second tier of British-led special forces with expertise in dealing with hostage-taking but these commandos will have to be flown in from their bases at home.

Finally, if the worst comes to the worst, and the verifiers have to be evacuated, there is a third tier of a further 3,000 Nato soldiers who are based outside Macedonia.

The Nato contingent based in Macedonia can respond to any request for help within an hour. But it could face several problems.

Because its soldiers are based outside Kosovo their knowledge of the terrain is likely to be limited.

Besides that, these helicopter-borne troops are vulnerable to the weather. Low clouds, storms and snow could all interfere with their speedy deployment.

Warnings from Belgrade

[ image: Serbia has vowed to defend its territory against any Nato incursion]
Serbia has vowed to defend its territory against any Nato incursion
There is also a political problem.

Although Nato says the deployment of the extraction force is part of the deal Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has signed up to, Belgrade has repeatedly warned that any Nato rescue mission inside Yugoslavia's borders would be treated as a violation of its sovereignty and it would be resisted.

Although this may be largely posturing, the warnings cannot be entirely ignored.

It is another question whether the extraction force will actually be needed.

During the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina armed United Nations peacekeepers were repeatedly taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs even while Nato planes were patrolling the skies over the country.

So the unarmed OSCE verifiers with no round-the-clock Nato strike presence over Kosovo seem much more vulnerable.

They could be kidnapped by Serbian plain-clothed forces, by Serbian paramilitaries or by the KLA - or any of these three posing as someone else.

The best hope for the verifiers is that an interim political settlement emerges in time to prevent a return to sustained fighting.

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