On the ground

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 April, 1999, 12:00am

Nato appears ready to bow to the inevitable as Secretary-General Javier Solano authorises his military command to update plans for a ground invasion. The step brings with it a new set of hazards.

Maintaining public support for war if body bags start coming home is only part of the problem. There is growing acknowledgment that aerial warfare is not enough - and that only an army can stop President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But a ground force may take weeks to mobilise, and would probably have to operate out of Albania with its bad roads and limited facilities. The presence of Nato forces must be reckoned in terms of years. Otherwise the purpose of this exercise cannot be achieved.

Before the refugees can be persuaded to return to their homes, they will have to be convinced it is safe to rebuild their lives in Kosovo. A protectorate of some kind seems likely, with a heavily-guarded frontier with Yugoslavia. Its legal nature would be a delicate matter, as would its internal politics.

The question of what would happen in Yugoslavia itself would not be settled by such a step. Despite the massive damage to the country's infrastructure, and the destruction of one of the President's homes yesterday, there are no signs he will withdraw without a fight to the finish, though a way out may be being forged by the visit of Russian negotiator Viktor Chernomyrdin.

If it is not, Nato has to see the fight through until it achieves its original objective. But the alliance should not be under any illusions about how long and bloody that process could be, and how long it may have to commit itself to maintaining the peace in Kosovo.