Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Kosovo, Serbia, Yougoslavia > Now It’s Neighbor Against Neighbor

Now It’s Neighbor Against Neighbor

June 26, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: June 26, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Standing by his horse and cart, ready to flee with his family, an elderly ethnic Albanian farmer broke down in tears today as he described how Serbs he had known for years had attacked his village. “They were our neighbors. We didn’t do any harm to them. They had nothing to complain about,” he sobbed. Gunfire crackled in the village behind him. Smoke billowed from a burning house nearby, a house belonging to a Serb.

After four months in which more than 300 people have died and an estimated 65,000 have become refugees, the conflict in Serbia’s southern province of Kosovo has entered a new phase that threatens to repeat the ethnic bloodletting that tore apart Bosnia in the 1992-95 war.

For nearly a year, separatist guerrillas of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo have engaged in what they call a liberation struggle against government forces from Serbia, the dominant region of Yugoslavia. And since February, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who commands the Yugoslav army and special Serbian police units deployed here, has waged an offensive against the rebels.

Now, however, neighbor is starting to fight neighbor in what is becoming a full-fledged, inter-ethnic war in Kosovo pitting ethnic Albanians — who account for 90 percent of the province’s 2 million people — against the minority Serbs.

Pantina, a cluster of red-tiled farmhouses set among fields of wheat that will soon be ready for harvest, was deserted today, apart from a few armed ethnic Albanians. The village lies about 20 miles northwest of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. As usual in Kosovo, the two sides differed over who started the latest bloodletting, but both agreed that the violence began Tuesday night about five miles north of here in the ethnically mixed village of Svinjare and spread to Pantina.

An account in one Serbian newspaper said ethnic Albanians, who in Kosovo are mostly Muslims, had attacked an Orthodox Christian church. But ethnic Albanian villagers allege that Serbian civilians — people they knew — had initiated the violence after being joined by police and paramilitary forces. The villagers said the Kosovo Liberation Army, the shadowy ethnic Albanian guerrilla organization, had intervened to hold Pantina but only after hundreds of people had fled.

Now, the conflict is creeping closer to Pristina, with its potentially explosive mix of 300,000 people — ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Turks and others. The rebels hold a fortified checkpoint just five miles from the capital outside a coal mine they captured on Tuesday. Little stands between them and Pristina. The talk in Pristina’s bars — apart from the latest World Cup soccer scores — is whether their city will become another Sarajevo.

Today, a Serbian police chief threatened to storm the captured mine, which feeds two power stations, unless the rebels release nine Serbian workers taken hostage. “They are bandits and terrorists. They threaten me and want to take my house,” he shouted at a group of reporters who were briefly taken into custody.

In Belgrade, meanwhile, U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke met again with President Milosevic in an attempt to broker a cease-fire between government forces and the guerrillas. The United States and its European allies are concerned that the conflict in Kosovo could envelop neighboring Albania and Macedonia, with its own large Albanian minority. Holbrooke declined to reveal details of his discussions.

“The situation in Kosovo poses the most severe dangers to . . . stability in Europe,” Holbrooke said. “It’s the Wild West down there.” NATO has warned Milosevic of possible military intervention if he does not pull back special police units that have spearheaded attacks on ethnic Albanian villages. But at the same time, Holbrooke emphasized that the international community would not bow to the secessionist demands of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. The compromise solution favored by the West — substantial political autonomy for Kosovo within the Yugoslav structure — finds scant support from either side. On Wednesday, Holbrooke crossed the front lines and met with members of the Kosovo Liberation Army for the first time. The State Department said the meeting was unplanned and unofficial, but U.S. diplomats appeared keen to open communications with the guerrilla group.

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