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Serbian Forces Prepare for Offensive in Kosovo

May 7, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: May 7, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Ethnic Albanians in the villages of Kosovo are digging trenches, smuggling in arms and food and peering at the enemy with binoculars. Up on the bare hills and ridges Serbian police are reinforcing sandbagged checkpoints and bringing in heavy weapons.

For the moment, the low-level war in Serbia’s restive southern province has reached a military stalemate. But Serbian Interior Ministry forces and the federal Yugoslav army, now in control of highways by day and the major towns, are positioned to launch a full-scale offensive against Albanian separatist rebels.

Western military observers say Belgrade’s military, weakened and demoralized by the wars that broke up much of Yugoslavia, knows no other way. “Their training is woefully ineffective,” one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Their concept of tactics is like Bosnia — blow the hell out of it and send in the nasties.”

This was the approach used by special police forces against strongholds of the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Drenica region of central Kosovo in late February and early March. Farmsteads were razed and, according to diplomats, some of the captured Albanians were killed. About 30 women and children were among the dead.

Lacking the money and means, the government in Belgrade cannot afford to fight a protracted guerrilla war. Neither the mainly conscript army nor the police have training in counterinsurgency. They lack night-fighting equipment and their intelligence-gathering is limited in a hostile environment where ethnic Albanians, in tightly knit clans, make up around 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people.

An overwhelming majority of the Albanians seek independence from Serbia, the dominant republic in what remains of Yugoslavia, a demand that finds no international support. The army says it has successfully ambushed armed groups bringing weapons over the mountains that mark the formidable, 60-mile-long border with Albania. But experts say the frontier is impossible to seal.

Both the federal army and the Serbian police are some 140,000-strong. Many have had minimal training, are poorly motivated and badly equipped. The full size of the army and police contingent deployed in Kosovo is not publicly known but reportedly numbers in the thousands. The Kosovo Liberation Army, which may be able to muster a core of about 500 fighters, roams freely at night and regularly raids exposed and poorly constructed police posts. Children playing soccer by their villages and old men in cafes and fields provide a network of observers.

Armed villagers not formally a part of the Kosovo Liberation Army are providing shelter and supplies. “We are getting more organized,” said one village leader who had been an officer in the former Yugoslav army. “We have a horizontal network between villages and a vertical command structure.”

If Milosevic defies warnings by foreign countries and international organizations and goes for the all-out military option, he risks exacerbating divisions within the Yugoslav army and between the army and police. Relations between Milosevic and Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the army chief of staff, are poor, and rumors of the general’s impending dismissal have circulated in Belgrade for months.

Perisic caused a storm in January when he suggested that the future of the army lay in cooperation with NATO and its Partnership for Peace program. Many officers are said to be bitter that Milosevic’s more-trusted Interior Ministry forces have been beefed up at the expense of the army, which cannot even afford to pay its foot soldiers.

Recent comments by Serbian officials have indicated that a major offensive is planned. Certainly large numbers of armored vehicles — police and army — have taken up new positions in recent days. In Pristina, the provincial capital, Veljko Odalovic, the Serbian governor of Kosovo, said the goal of what Serbians call the Kosovo “terrorists” is to move the Albanian border eastward, linking it with the nearby region of Decani, and then on to the central Drenica area. “We are in position to prevent that, to use serious force to eliminate the danger to our border and our territory,” he said. “No price is too high to pay.”

Nationalist rhetoric carried on state media has prepared Serbs for this final reckoning of accounts in a land revered as the cradle of Serbian civilization before its conquest by the Ottomans six centuries ago. “Some Western powers have constantly been encouraging the Albanian separatists openly to start a war but the Albanians know very well what is in store for them in a possible war,” proclaimed Vojislav Seselj, a paramilitary leader during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia and now a deputy prime minister in the Serbian government.

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