West alert to dangerous rites of spring in Kosovo

Ian Black, Richard Norton-Taylor

Saturday March 11, 2000

Europe and the US injected a note of urgency yesterday into allied attempts to contain conflicts in Kosovo, saying ethnic tensions were flaring dangerously a year after Nato's bombing campaign.

After talking to EU leaders in Brussels, the US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, said there was mounting concern about clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the Kosovan town of Mitrovice.

"The spring has not always been good for the Balkans," she said. "We have been consulting on ways to try to lower the temperature and press extremists not to pursue activities that complicate the situation."

General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme commander, warned in London yesterday that Yugoslavia was "tightening the noose" on its reluctant federal partner, Montenegro.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Foreign Policy Centre, Gen Clark said it was getting harder and harder for K-For peacekeepers to police Kosovo. He said there was growing unrest in the south-eastern part of Serbia proper, where he feared that armed groups of men who claim to be protecting their families could provoke Serb over-reaction. He did not name them, but was referring to bands of ethnic Albanian paramilitaries.

Some observers see the current situation as an ominous rerun of events at this time last year - which led to war.

While in Brussels Mrs Albright was also seeing Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy supremo, who wants reassure Washington that rapidly evolving EU defence plans will not undermine the western alliance.

She met Mr Solana in his Brussels headquarters, which this week took in the first European army officers ever involved in EU military planning. Earlier, Mr Solana had emphatically told the Guardian that the EU had no intention of creating a "European army".

"What we are doing is creating a new capability, but it is not going to be a European army," he insisted. "It's not going to fight wars, it's going to do crisis management.

"The Americans know what we are trying to do. It is not related to the construction of a European army, but we are trying to upgrade the armed forces of the European countries so they can act together.

"We are not talking about making war. We are talking about the establishment of peace and stability. We are not in the business of creating a European army, and we are not in the business of weakening Nato," he said.

Mr Solana, appointed last year to try to boost slow-moving efforts to give the EU greater clout on the world stage, maintained that military plans were moving "at the speed of light" compared with the introduction of Europe's single currency.

The EU decided at last December's Helsinki summit to establish a 50,000-to 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force capable of deploying within 60 days and sustaining itself for up to a year. This force, to be ready by 2003, would allow Europeans to take action outside Nato, where the US does not wish to be involved.

Mrs Albright also urged greater efforts from the EU to support Kosovo's UN administration and police force, which are facing mounting difficulties. But Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, rejected US charges that the EU was not opening its markets to Balkan countries, officials said. The issue is likely to be highlighted at a fundraising conference in Brussels later this month.

Mrs Albright refused to be drawn on questions about military planning for Kosovo, but Nato has already said it needs to boost troop strength in its K-For peacekeeping force - currently at 37,400 within the province and 44,000 overall to last summer's level of 49,000.

Washington is also pressing the EU for greater efforts to help the reformist Montenegrin president, Milo Djukanovic, who is under acute pressure from Belgrade to abandon any thought of leaving the Yugoslav federation.

Original article