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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK

UK Politics

Kosovo: A long way to go

Paddy Ashdown warns air drops may put Nato forces at risk

By Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, who made three trips to Kosovo last year to draw attention to the plight of the war-torn province and its refugees.

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.

[ image: Pan-Albanian nationalism could prove the next threat, Ashdown warns]
Pan-Albanian nationalism could prove the next threat, Ashdown warns
Nato servicemen and women have hitherto been relatively protected from risks, but now we are going to have to take some tough decisions.

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 targetted 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.

Where is Plan B?

Nato actions are starting to have an effect on the ground, but there is a long way to go.

[ image:  ]
The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo has been Milosevic's strategy since well before the West began to take notice, and since the beginning of the Nato air strikes he has been able to accelerate this revolting plan. Crucially, he is no longer acting with impunity. But we cannot force a solution yet.

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. The end of Serb rule in Kosovo will almost certainly be the end of Milosevic.

So with every day that passes we are back, yet again, to this question: if the air campaign does not force Milosevic to capitulate, what then? Where is plan B?

We have to be prepared to go in, when it is sensible to do so, with ground troops, preferably, of course, with Serb agreement, but, if necessary, without it. We should have been preparing for this scenario already - and I suspect that, behind the scenes, we have at last begun to do so. Yesterday's pledge from the Albanian Government that Nato can base more reinforcements on its territory is encouraging.

Prepare troops on border

But post-Rambouillet peace-making will be different from Rambouillet peace-keeping, and 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.

Kosovo: Special Report
The current refusal to contemplate a ground attack has tied us in a preposterous knot. We say that Nato will have failed if the refugees don't go back; and the refugees won't go back unless there are troops on the ground to protect them. But we also say we won't put troops in unless Milosevic agrees. This effectively gives the ethnic cleanser a veto on whether we can reverse the ethnic cleansing.

Most of Rambouillet can be effectively recycled, but one of its key propositions is a dead letter. It would be simply intolerable, and indeed impracticable, for Kosovo to return to its status as a province under Belgrade control - the idea of refugees returning to their homes in Kosovo with Serbian police forces still there on the ground is clearly nonsensical. And the West must be much more explicit in saying this.

Durable peace needed for Balkans

But we cannot afford to think of Kosovo as an island of disturbance. 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 within the Former Republic of Yugoslav.

And what of Milosevic himself? The West's mistake over the last decade has been to see Serbia's leader as part of the solution, when he was, in fact, the central problems. There is now no doubt in my mind, as I told him face to face in Belgrade last October, that President Milosevic is indictable under international law, and that he should be brought before the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. To that end I will be handing over the material gathered on my visits to Kosovo to the prosecutors later this month.

A durable peace in the Southern Balkans depends on politics and justice. Milosevic must not be allowed to obstruct the first or to evade the second.

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