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Serbs Pound Kosovo Rebels

September 29, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: September 29, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Serbian forces pounded ethnic Albanian rebels and burned villages in the province of Kosovo today despite an announcement by Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic that a seven-month offensive against the militant separatists was over.

In a statement that appeared aimed at averting NATO airstrikes, Marjanovic told a special session of the Serbian parliament in Belgrade that the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group seeking Kosovo’s independence, had been defeated.

“Peace reigns in Kosovo,” Marjanovic said. “As of today all anti-terrorist activities have ended. They will be renewed only if any new bandit and terrorist activity reappears.”But in southern Kosovo, near the town of Urosevac, government forces were still pounding the guerrillas with heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. A police officer said they were “mopping up” the last pockets of resistance. Diplomatic observers counted about 50 columns of smoke rising from a five-mile stretch of ethnic Albanian villages.

Responding to a key NATO demand, Marjanovic said special police units would be withdrawn from Kosovo. He also offered amnesty to ethnic Albanians who turn in their weapons within 10 days and are innocent of rebel activity.

Marjanovic also announced the government will appoint a temporary executive council, including ethnic Albanians, to govern Kosovo’s 2 million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation that emerged from the 1991-1995 Balkan wars.

In Rabat, Morocco, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said the United States sees no sign of a Serbian withdrawal. Cohen said Marjanovic’s remarks “may be another rhetorical declaration without any intent to match those words with concrete steps,” the Reuters news service reported.

The United States is seeking to negotiate a political settlement to the Kosovo conflict that would restore the province’s autonomy, which was lifted nine years ago, but would stop short of meeting ethnic Albanian demands for independence.

Western diplomats welcomed Marjanovic’s statement but were skeptical that the conflict was over. They recalled that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the most powerful Serbian politician, told European envoys on July 30 that the operation was finished.

Since then, dozens of villages have been destroyed or damaged by artillery. More than 250,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians, have fled their homes. About 1,000 people have been killed, according to some estimates.

The Kosovo Liberation Army said on Sunday it would continue its “just war” for independence from Yugoslavia. Western military observers doubt Serbia can impose a military solution, predicting that Serbian forces will be unable to secure territory or prevent the rebels from returning to their rural bases. However, the Kosovo Liberation Army as an organized force barely exists any longer.

Serbian police said more than 100 rebels had been killed in recent fighting around Cicavica mountain, just west of Pristina, the provincial capital, and that several dozen were killed near Urosevac, a town about 20 miles south of Pristina. Several hundred suspected guerrillas were said to have been arrested.

Serbian media reported that nine policemen had died since the weekend, including five killed by a land mine. Police sources said more than 160 policemen have been killed this year; the official toll is about 80.

The Serbian declaration of what amounts to a unilateral cease-fire follows stepped-up warnings to Milosevic that time is running out before NATO intervenes. The U.N. Security Council called for an immediate cease-fire last week, and NATO defense ministers set in motion plans that could lead to airstrikes against Serbian targets.

Diplomats and aid workers say up to 50,000 ethnic Albanians are without shelter and that a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding as winter approaches. Torrential rain has fallen over the past week, with refugees taking shelter under plastic sheeting and eating wild fruit to survive.

The Serbian government insists that no one is left out in the open and that it has opened urban aid centers.

Serbian military tactics appear aimed at driving the guerrillas — and sympathetic civilians — from large areas. Police have looted and burned villages, using “scorched earth” tactics to dissuade the ethnic Albanian majority from helping the rebels.

In the southwest, the government is organizing councils of “loyal Albanians” to control villages and prevent the guerrillas from regrouping. Village leaders are issued uniforms and weapons and given government aid to rebuild their homes.

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