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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK

UK Politics

Ashdown urges Kosovo air drops

Aid for refugees is being organised at Tirana in Albania

Click here to read Paddy Ashdown's article

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown is writing to Prime Minister Tony Blair recommending Nato starts air drops to refugees hiding in forests within Kosovo's mountains.

[ image: Paddy Ashdown:
Paddy Ashdown: "Urgent concern for refugees in Kosovo"
In an article for BBC News Online, Mr Ashdown further warns conflict in the Balkans could re-emerge through pan-Albanian nationalism unless a lasting solution is found.

He writes: "Our urgent concern today must be for the hundreds of thousands of refugees now seeking desperate refuge in the forests within Kosovo itself.

"The Milosevic regime, having trapped them there, will not allow food or water in, and it cannot be long, if it has not begun already, before starvation and disease start to take their toll."

The Lib Dem leader, who made three trips to Kosovo last year, warns Nato must now take tough decisions, which could put its forces at risk, to get aid to the refugees.

"To get any aid in to the refugees in the forests and hills we would need to make air drops.

"Three scenarios are open to us:

  • to negotiate with Milosevic for permission to make these mercy trips - negotiations which would offer him respite from Nato action and which would undermine our ability to liberate Kosovo from his repression
  • to conduct low level, closely targeted air drops which would be very dangerous for our aircrews
  • or, to attempt high level aid drops, which would be risky, possibly inaccurate, and difficult to target.

"The third of these may not be perfect but it is the only viable option, and I am writing to the prime minister today to make this suggestion.

"Otherwise, Nato will face growing public unease at the refugee plight as the weeks roll on - and it will take many more weeks to work to a solution of this long-brewing crisis."

The Greek air force has already revealed it intends to start dropping emergency supplies to the refugees in Kosovo.

Kosovo: Special Report
Mr Ashdown warns Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic will now be likely to try to hang on to the end, having endured more than two weeks of air attacks.

"Nato's declared aim is to force Milosevic to comply. I hope it works, but I am not optimistic.

"He is unlikely to be bombed into submission, largely because he has identified his own power so closely with the retention of Kosovo within Serbia - a piece of symbolism which he took pains to promote even during his ascent to the presidency.

[ image: President Slobodan Milosevic is
President Slobodan Milosevic is "unlikely to be bombed into submission"
"The end of Serb rule in Kosovo will almost certainly be the end of Milosevic."

Ground troops must be prepared now and Nato leaders should realise circumstances within Kosovo have changed radically during the Nato offensive.

"If we don't prepare troops on the border for this different role we may find ourselves simply unable to act effectively once the risk of ground involvement has been reduced to an acceptable level by the air attacks on Serb forces in Kosovo.

"That would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mr Ashdown makes one further dire warning to the West. It would be a grave mistake, he says, to consider Kosovo an "island of disturbance" in an otherwise settled region.

He predicts pan-Albanian nationalism could prove as dangerous as President Milosevic if left unchecked.

"The solution we need is not just another Kosovo peace plan, but a settlement for the southern Balkans, which leaves the region stable.

"The new inevitability of independence for Kosovo as an ultimate destination, after, I believe, an interim period as an international protectorate, makes it even more crucial that we prevent the instability that this could bring to Macedonia and Albania, and through them to Greece and Turkey.

"The two great dangers to Balkan stability, seen at war so painfully in Kosovo, are pan-Serbian nationalism and pan-Albanian nationalism.

"The surge of sympathy, support and manpower for the KLA amongst ethnic Albanians across the region shows us exactly how vulnerable nations such as Macedonia and Montenegro are to a fissuring along ethnic lines, and should make us even more determined to find a regional solution to this crisis.

"The idea of a greater Albania is potentially as explosive a trigger for war as Milosevic's ruthless pursuit of ethnic supremacy for the Serbs."

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