Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Kosovo, Serbia, Yougoslavia > Simmering Conflict in Kosovo Intensifies

Simmering Conflict in Kosovo Intensifies

April 28, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: April 28, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Adem Nacaj shuddered and then wept as he lifted the lid of the coffin containing his son Veli, 30. “These Serbs are war criminals. What they are doing is unbelievable,” he cried.

In all, 19 coffins were laid out in a bare room thick with the stench of death. Outside, more relatives gathered to identify the bodies — bodies of young ethnic Albanian men said by authorities to have been killed by Yugoslav army troops last Thursday while attempting to smuggle arms from Albania into Serbia’s restive province of Kosovo.The truth may never be known. Villagers insisted that some of the young men had been arrested days before the clashes. Skender Bajraktari claimed his brother Halil had disappeared on April 19 after he went to buy food. The village — known as Erec to the Serbs and Hereq to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority — lies just five miles from the snow-capped mountains that form the Yugoslav-Albanian border.

During yesterday’s funeral for nine of the dead, gunfire and explosions could be heard from a nearby hill where police have pinned down guerrillas of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in the village of Babaloc. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.

The province’s long-simmering crisis has intensified since special Serbian police units launched an offensive on Feb. 28 against suspected guerrilla strongholds in the central Drenica area near Pristina, the provincial capital. More than 80 ethnic Albanians were killed, many of them women and children.

Defying Western calls for a withdrawal of military and special police units from the province, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government has embarked on a massive show of force. Heavily armed police man checkpoints protected by sandbags along main roads.

The Yugoslav army has brought in hundreds of reinforcements, as well as tanks and artillery, to guard the porous border with Albania. Some are digging positions farther inside Kosovo near the villages of Babaloc and Glodjane, where armed ethnic Albanians are concentrated.

Serbian officials said troops early today killed three Albanians smuggling weapons over the mountains. The Democratic League of Kosovo, the main ethnic Albanian party, accused the army of launching an artillery attack on the village of Voksa, killing about a dozen people.

Police barred reporters from the area, and no independent confirmation was possible. Elsewhere, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a Japanese Embassy vehicle near the central Kosovo village of Lausa, occupied by ethnic Albanians and ringed by police. In the car, a diplomat attempting to investigate conditions in Kosovo was uninjured; his driver suffered minor injuries.

Western diplomats fear the ethnic violence here is spinning out of control and risks destabilizing Albania as well as neighboring Macedonia, which has a large ethnic Albanian minority. Serbian authorities report daily attacks by separatist “terrorists” against police posts and what the government calls “loyal Albanians.” On the other side, the Democratic League of Kosovo, which demands independence for the province, has named numerous people said to have been killed or wounded in villages surrounded by police in the Drenica and border areas. It also has accused police of arming Serbian civilians.

Officials in Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia, have been steadfast in their efforts to retain control in Kosovo and have shrugged off a U.N. arms embargo and limited economic sanctions imposed by Western powers.

There has been little movement toward talks between the government — which has offered the province limited self-rule — and the Kosovo Albanians, whose leader, Ibrahim Rugova, insists on full independence. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, politically weaker than when he rose to power in Serbia 10 years ago, is reviving his image of nationalist strongman. In a referendum last week, Serbian voters overwhelmingly endorsed his rejection of foreign mediation in Kosovo.

U.S. officials have said Washington will push for additional sanctions against Belgrade when representatives of the six-nation “contact group” on the Balkan region meet in Rome on Wednesday.

The tough U.S. stance is backed by Britain and Germany but less so by the other members — France, Italy and Russia. “I am pessimistic,” said Blerim Shala, a spokesman for a 15-member team set up by Rugova to prepare a platform for talks. “I don’t see a serious attempt by the international community to stop this conflict.” Shala also acknowledged that probably no politician in Kosovo has the power to curb the separatist guerrillas, who are funded and organized by radical Albanian exiles in Switzerland and Germany.

The poorly organized and equipped rebels lost one of their main commanders in Drenica last month but have broadened their popular support in the wake of the recent government crackdown.

The despair evidenced by politicians in the relative calm of Pristina is far more intense among Kosovo villagers who have sent their women and children to the safety of towns and their young men to Albania to collect weapons. “This is the guilt of Europe,” said one man in Erec, pointing to the 19 coffins. “What are the Germans doing? Where are the Americans? You are talking and sleeping. . . . We can only go into the woods now.”

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