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Monday, March 29, 1999 Published at 17:42 GMT 18:42 UK

UK Politics

Blair's new Kosovo test

Pristina comes under attack by Nato forces

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's robust defence of the escalating Nato action against Serbia is a clear recognition of the hugely dangerous phase the conflict is entering.

Until now the fragile political alliance has held, and public opinion is still overwhelmingly behind the prime minister in his determination to hit at Slobodan Milosevic.

But the first signs of serious opposition are starting to surface from all sides in the Commons, and all the opinion polls show that most believe the war is not worth the loss of a single British life.

But the launch of low level air attacks by RAF Harriers and Tornados will massively increase the chances of British casualties.

The prime minister has never played down the likelihood of losses and, from the very start of the bombings, has stressed the operation would be a difficult one.

Kosovo: Special Report
If an aircraft is brought down, Nato's resolve and public support for the action may well start to crack.

The fact that one of America's "star" Stealth bombers has been lost - whether to Serb air defences or not - has given Milosevic a major morale boost.

Hang heads

At the same time, the worries over where Nato goes from here are growing.

Mr Blair has ruled out the use of ground troops to pursue the military action while many believe, without it, the campaign will achieve little.

And that has led to severe criticism from some MPs, led by former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell.

He told the Commons he had recently visited Kosovo and without the commitment of troops to meet the Serbs head-on action would fail.

"If the political will is not there, let us admit it is not there and hang our heads and walk away in shame," he said.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond delivered a stinging attack on the policy during a party political broadcast, claiming it may be illegal, and was a misguided and "unpardonable folly".

Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley also joined the attacks, raising questions over the government's longer term aims.

There are also fears that President Milosevic will use the excuse of the action to turn his attention to Montenegro, where has faced persistent opposition from the local government.

If he attempts to oust the regime and reassert his authority, that could escalate the crisis and pile further pressure on the alliance.

Border closed

Meanwhile, an unprecedented refugee crisis is gathering pace and even led to Albania closing its border with Yugoslavia in the face of the influx.

That led Mr Blair to slap down any suggestions that the Serbs had stepped up the policy of ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians as a direct result of the Nato action.

"The massacres we are witnessing now were planned by Milosevic over the last two months when he built up an army and special police presence in the Kosovo region totalling 40,000 troops and 300 tanks.

"It is now clear that Serb participation in the Paris peace talks was a cover for Milosevic's offensive preparations," he said.

The strength of his remarks underlined the recognition of the new risks now facing Britain and Nato as the war enters its second stage.

Suggestions that the Russians may be willing to attempt to broker a deal with Milosevic came as a small glimmer of optimism during what were otherwise gloomy Commons exchanges.

Few on either side are prepared to predict which way the conflict will now go, and all are highly sensitive to the fact that public opinion could very easily change, landing Nato with a major new problem.

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