TONY BLAIR stretched the Army to the limit last night by authorising the long-term deployment of up to 8,000 British troops to Kosovo as peacekeepers.
In a dramatic signal to the warring Serbs and ethnic Albanians to strike an early peace accord, he gave the go-ahead for the first UK units to be despatched to the Balkans next week.
On Monday, in one of the biggest deployments since the Gulf War, tanks, guns and armoured vehicles will be shipped out, with 200 logistics personnel flying on ahead to prepare for their arrival.
Another 2,000 UK troops in Germany have been put on standby.
They will comprise the advance guard of a force which could total 40,000, including Americans, Germans, French and Russians.
The surprise decision was announced just as negotiations over the future of Kosovo reached a critical point in France. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, the talks co-chairman, imposed a news blackout on progress at the chateau of Rambouillet near Paris.
In an emergency statement to MPs, Defence Secretary George Robertson made clear that the force would be deployed only if there was a peace agreement.
He added: 'What is clear, however, is that should a force be required, it will have to be ready to go quickly.
And to be effective it must be assembled well in advance.' He announced that Challenger tanks, Warrior armoured vehicles and heavy guns from the Royal Artillery will be loaded aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Sea Centurion and …