JANE O’HARA March 29 1999


JANE O’HARA March 29 1999

Back to the brink

As peace talks fail, NATO threatens air strikes



The father watched sadly as columns of dense smoke rose over the village of Drvare in northern Kosovo. Myftari Xhema, his wife and seven children had just escaped the advancing Yugoslav soldiers who had torched their home. The latest Serbian offensive in the year-long civil war in the country’s Kosovo province has driven rebel forces deep into the mountains that lie just beyond Drvare. Last week, thousands of refugees moved from village to village in front of the fighting, swelling the ranks of the 400,000 ethnic Albanians who are now homeless. And as Xhema sought shelter, talks in Paris aimed at bringing peace to the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro collapsed over Serbia’s refusal to allow NATO to send in troops to enforce any eventual deal. “Without NATO troops,” Xhema told Maclean’s, “there can be no security.”

It could be a long time before Xhema gets back to his village. The Paris negotiators, representing the so-called Contact Group of six Western countries warned Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic that if he does not add Serbia’s signature to the agreement, his country could face air strikes as early as this week. But far from showing signs of concession, Serbia has massed 40,000 troops on Kosovo’s border and vowed to slaughter the ethnic Albanian population if NATO starts bombing.

The Contact Group brought representatives of the ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 per cent of Kosovo’s 2.2 million people,

and the Serbs to the bargaining table in February. Last week, the Kosovo delegation turned up the pressure on the Serbs by dropping its demand for autonomy. Instead, it agreed to a limited form of self-rule for three years until a final agreement can be reached.

Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic offered a blunt assessment of that

agreement: “It means nothing.” He restated his country’s determination to maintain control of Kosovo—which many Serbs consider to be their ancient homeland. And at the front, their troops deployed modern T-72 tanks for the first time and moved into devastated towns previously occupied by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. Members of the minority Serbian population also vowed to stay put. Said Dusan Milkovic, who farms near Drvare: ‘We will fight to the last man.”

Last week saw more evidence of how far the Serbs will go to keep Kosovo. An international medical team, headed by Dr. Helena Ranta of Finland, was investigating the January deaths of 40 ethnic Albanians in a rural village. The Serbs had said the victims were members of the KLA. But Ranta said tests revealed the dead included several elderly men. ‘This,” said Ranta, “is a crime against humanity.”

With the talks called off, 22 Canadian diplomats and their families began leaving Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. Another 65 Canadians who were part of a 1,400member international force monitoring the situation in Kosovo left for Macedonia. “It was an emotional scene,” Col. Marc Caron told Maclean’s from Kosovo’s capital of Pristina. “It’s an uncertain future.” Meanwhile, Western leaders turned their pressure on Milosevic. “Make no mistake, if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres,” warned U. S. president Bill Clinton. “In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill, but action and resolve can stop armies and save lives.”

Milosevic could be gambling that Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, will continue to support him and prevent the bombing. But even Moscow is losing patience with Milosevic, refusing to supply Serbia with sophisticated air defence systems. But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also warned that NATO is underestimating the impact of any bombing. “If a military conflict breaks out,” said Ivanov, “it would spread over the Balkans.”

Details of any military operation are still to be determined, but 800 troops standing by at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton could join a NATO force of more than 28,000 on the ground in Kosovo. There would be no deployment, however, until after a massive bombing campaign aimed at crippling the Serbs’ ability to fight. But the bombing mission itself would be extremely dangerous. ‘There is a distinct possibility,” said Gen. Michael Ryan, the U.S. air force chief of staff in Washington, “that we will lose aircraft.” Milosevic may be betting that the risk—and the difficulty of targeting dispersed Yugoslav forces—will keep NATO bombers grounded.

The Kosovo file

Founded following the Second World War, Communist Yugoslavia existed as an uneasy alliance of ethnic groups. But the 1980 death of Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of this decade weakened the forces that held it together. Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have left the federation, leaving only Serbia and Montenegro. Since 1989, Serbia has considered Kosovo, formerly an autonomous neighbouring region, to be a province. Muslims of Albanian extraction make up 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population, but the Orthodox Serbs consider the area to have great religious significance. It was there that the Turks defeated the Serbs in 1389, introducing Islam to the area. Since the early 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army has been fighting for control. Western leaders want to stabilize the region by forcing Serbia to give Kosovo its independence.