World

Another Bosnia?

NATO threatens military action in Kosovo

NOMI MORRIS June 22 1998
World

Another Bosnia?

NATO threatens military action in Kosovo

NOMI MORRIS June 22 1998

Another Bosnia?

NATO threatens military action in Kosovo

World

The narrow streets of Decani’s old quarter are empty, except for a few blue-uniformed Serbian police hunkered down behind sandbagged checkpoints. They occupy the charred ruins of a Kosovo town where just a few weeks ago 20,000 ethnic Albanians lived and worked. The ghostly silence is broken by the wailing of livestock, abandoned when the townsfolk fled a Serbian onslaught. At the village mosque, torn copies of the Koran lie scattered among shards of glass from smashed windows. Several hundred men are unaccounted for, and activists in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, fear many have been executed.

Some 300 Kosovo civilians have been confirmed killed in the three months since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began an assault against separatist rebels in Serbia’s southern province, where 90 per cent of the population is ethnic Albanian. Most of Decani’s survivors trudged over the mountains to neighboring Albania to share the uncertain fate of 60,000 Kosovo refugees sheltering inside and outside the country. Standing under an umbrella in Decani last week, Richard Miles, the senior American diplomat in

Belgrade, surveyed the carnage. The international community, he said, must not let Kosovo become another Bosnia.

That sentiment was uppermost in the minds of NATO leaders as they ordered a full air exercise over Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, beginning as early as this week. Western powers hope to show a recalcitrant Milosevic that after three months of pressing him diplomatically to find a political solution, they are prepared to follow up with military force. Canadian Forces were readying six CF-18 fighter planes from Baggotville, Que., pending cabinet approval on Tuesday. Last year, six CF-18s and 111 military personnel served at the Aviano air base in Italy to help NATO monitor operations in Bosnia. Defence Minister Art Eggleton signalled that Canada is again ready to support whatever the alliance deems necessary.

At a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, NATO defence ministers said they were drawing up plans that include air strikes against selected targets throughout federal Yugoslavia—including northern Serbia—and the use of ground forces. In London a day later, Group of Seven ministers debated political action they hoped

could stave off the military option. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced an immediate freeze of Canadian investment in Yugoslavia and on Yugoslav assets in Canada, a measure a group of Western nations had approved in March and then suspended until last week. “It is now obvious,” said Axworthy, “that President Milosevic has chosen confrontation rather than negotiation.”

The destruction of Decani and other towns seemed only too horrifyingly familiar. The looting by police, the exodus of women, children and the elderly, the disappearance of men of fighting age—all brought back bitter memories of Serbian “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims during Bosnia’s civil war. Then, it took a divided and hesitant West more than three years before NATO’s intervention brought an end to the conflict in 1995. Nobody wants to repeat that record. Yet diplomats on the ground and observers abroad believe any immediate major military action in Kosovo remains unlikely. Kosovo, after all, is recognized by the West as a legal part of Serbia, which along with Montenegro makes up what is left of Yugoslavia. “At least Bosnia was recognized as an independent state, and we know how much resistance there was to intervention in Bosnia,” says Gordana Knezevic, a former deputy editor-in-chief at the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje (Liberation) who now lives in

Toronto. NATO would probably have to commit to an indefinite mission to keep peace between Kosovo’s two ethnic communities—just as in Bosnia.

Western officials also fear that the conflict would engulf Albania and Macedonia, which has a large Albanian minority, if they support the Kosovo Liberation Army’s violent quest for secession. Instead, they have backed the moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova—nicknamed Gandhi—who has pressed peacefully for self-government for Kosovo’s two million people. “The trick is to stop Milosevic but not hand over control of Kosovo to the KLA,” one Western ambassador explained. So far, that evenhanded policy has failed to persuade Milosevic to reinstate the broad autonomy the province enjoyed until he ended it in 1989. In exeditor Knezevic’s view, Milosevic has turned his sights on Kosovo to divert attention from Serbia’s poor economy and his waning popularity. “By starting another war,” says Knezevic, “he keeps people from going into the streets against him.”

Milosevic’s behavior has followed a familiar pattern. As Western pressure increased this spring, Milosevic held his first-ever meeting with Rugova. But in recent weeks, with international attention focused elsewhere, Serbian jets, helicopters and tanks have conducted a virtual scorched-earth campaign to secure the border area—which the KLA uses to smuggle in weapons and newly

trained fighters—and effectively prevent ethnic Albanians from returning to their homes. Now, what little talk there was of a political solution has evaporated. “Negotiations would have no meaning, said Fehmi Agani, a senior adviser to Rugova. “If villages are being set on fire, what kind of talks can you expect?”

Last week, after a leadership meeting of his governing Socialist party, Milosevic issued a characteristic statement saying he would co-operate with “efforts to decrease tensions.” He was also due to meet this week in Moscow with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, normally sympathetic, for talks on the crisis. Yet on the ground, the NATO warnings appeared to have little impact. A steady thud of Serbian shells landed in the border mountains each evening. Serbian police reinforcements and federal army troops were seen trundling deep into Kosovo, despite the army’s insistence that its role is only to secure the border with Albania. The mood in Kosovo was increasingly desperate. “Where is America? Where is Europe? You are sleeping,” screamed one demonstrator in the streets of Pristina as 10,000 marchers called for NATO to intervene.

NATO strikes against Serbian military targets would undoubtedly boost the fast-growing power of the hardline KLA. The rebel group was long dismissed as disorganized and poorly trained and

equipped. But the KLA now finds popular support within Kosovo and from the large Albanian diaspora in Europe and North America, which also provides funds. Arms—including antitank weapons and possibly some surface-to-air missiles—continue to come over the mountains from Albania. Kosovo Albanians fear that once Milosevic has secured the border regions, he will go after the rebel-held central town of Malisevo, the supply hub for the KLA. At night, trucks roll in loaded with flour, food and gas. Late last week, the Serbian military was massing in the town of Kijevo, just 10 km away.

Western envoys are hoping that Rugova, who refuses even to acknowledge the existence of the KLA, can still bring about a political settlement—if he is willing to accept something less than full independence. But for many ethnic Albanians, too much blood has been spilled and too many houses destroyed to give in now. Cracks in the Yugoslav federation have also deepened with the election victory in Montenegro of Milosevic’s pro-Western rival, Milo Djukanovic. As the crisis worsens, many believe that only Western soldiers—including Canadians—can keep the Balkans from unravelling.

NOMI MORRIS with GUYDINMORE in Pristina and LUKE FISHER in Ottawa

NOMI MORRIS

GUY DINMORE

LUKE FISHER