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Serb Forces Depart Major Kosovo Base

October 3, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: October 3, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore ; R. Jeffrey Smith

Units of a Serbian Interior Ministry force pulled out of a major base and dismantled a roadblock in Kosovo province today. But ethnic Albanian separatist rebels said it was just a trick and urged NATO to stop delaying and launch immediate airstrikes.

Serbian officials took foreign reporters to the Ajvalija garrison just outside the provincial capital Pristina and the Komorane checkpoint, 12 miles to the west, to demonstrate that the Serbian government was serious about its declaration on Monday that military operations in Kosovo were over and that most special forces would be returned to barracks or leave the province.“The special police have been sent on a late summer holiday,” said a Serbian government spokesman. The Ajvalija base, which has been used by special forces to undermine ethnic Albanian resistance, has not been dismantled, however, and the troops could return later.

Authorities in Belgrade, capital of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia, also said independent experts would be allowed into Kosovo, a Serbian province, to investigate reports of the indiscriminate killing of ethnic Albanian civilians, including women, children and the elderly.Diplomats and human rights investigators say special Serbian police units and paramilitary groups were responsible.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the most powerful Serbian political figure, has been under mounting Western pressure to end a seven-month offensive against guerrillas of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, withdraw army and special police forces from the province and allow international monitors free access to investigate abuses and assist refugees.

President Clinton said the United States would continue pressing for a diplomatic solution but that he hoped Milosevic understood that NATO was prepared to launch military strikes if the demands are not met. “We cannot allow this conflict to spread again and risk what we stopped in Bosnia starting over again in Kosovo,” Clinton told reporters in Washington.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said NATO would intervene in less than two weeks to “provide relief for the people who are currently suffering” if Milosevic fails to respond. In Moscow, however, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament both issued strong warnings against the use of force against Serbia, Russia’s historic ally.

A senior Defense Ministry official told the Interfax news agency that a military strike would lead to demands at home for Russia’s withdrawal from the Russia-NATO partnership approved last year. “All contacts with NATO will be called off,” predicted the official, who was not otherwise identified. Western observers said it appeared a withdrawal of Serbian forces was continuing in Kosovo, although some units were still in place, possibly mounting a rear-guard action against some separatist rebels. But a local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, based in the Cicavica mountains just west of Pristina, said the Milosevic government was playing politics.

“If NATO does not come now we will be finished,” said the commander, standing beside the freshly dug graves of 14 ethnic Albanian men killed last week during a major assault against guerrillas in the Cicavica range. “They were afraid of NATO airstrikes and withdrew. If there are no airstrikes they will be back immediately.” While the United States and its NATO allies have urged an end to the Serbian offensive against the guerrillas, they oppose ethnic Albanian demands for independence and favor instead a restoration of autonomy for Kosovo, where Albanians outnumber Serbs 9-to-1. The few guerrillas seen by reporters today appeared demoralized and poorly armed with old Chinese-made rifles. The authorities claimed this week that more than 100 Kosovo Liberation Army “terrorists” had been killed in the Cicavica mountains and that the threat from the rebels had been eliminated. Villagers on the edge of the ridge exposed to Serbian artillery said their settlement, Poljanc, was shelled Thursday night. The few dozen inhabitants still there were loading their tractors and trailers to leave. One elderly man was transporting his extended family with a cow tethered to his cart. He had fled Poljanc a week ago during the fighting and had just returned when he had to take flight once more. Reporters heard two artillery explosions in the distance, coming from the central Drenica area, a former Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold where the guerrilla force is starting to regroup. In the Serbian capital, Belgrade, meanwhile, there is a growing sense of alarm over the threatened NATO action. Residents are stocking up on food and the capital is running short of gasoline. Some young men have gone into hiding to avoid being drafted. One man said military police were rounding up air defense reservists. Anti-Western sentiment has been fueled by nationalist propaganda in the state-controlled media, although some residents blame Milosevic for their international isolation and economic straits. Foreigners took advice from Western embassies to be ready to leave at short notice. Vojislav Seselj, a deputy prime minister and leader of the ultranationalist Radical party, was quoted in newspapers as warning foreigners and Serbs who worked for them to “watch their backs.” Correspondent David Hoffman in Moscow contributed to this report.

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