Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Kosovo, Serbia, Yougoslavia > New Kosovo Clashes Raise Specter of War

New Kosovo Clashes Raise Specter of War

January 16, 1999

by Guy Dinmore
Special to The Washington Post – January 16, 1999

BELGRADE, Jan. 15—Serbian forces unleashed a new attack on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian rebels today, reportedly killing at least 15 guerrillas in heavy fighting that raised fears among NATO commanders that a full-scale conflict could resume in the province.

In a separate incident, a British monitor and his Serbian interpreter were shot and wounded in the first attack on the international observer force trying to police an unofficial cease-fire agreement here.

The renewed clashes dashed hopes that the observers had succeeded in restoring calm after negotiating the release Wednesday of eight Yugoslav army soldiers captured by rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The ethnic Albanian rebels have been fighting for independence for Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) suffered its first casualties since the unarmed verification mission began to deploy in October, after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, under the threat of NATO airstrikes, agreed to allow ground and air monitoring of the province. The observers are monitoring a partial withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces and the informal cease-fire.

William Walker, the U.S. envoy heading the OSCE mission, said the monitor and interpreter were wounded when their convoy came under fire while investigating fighting near the southwestern town of Decani. They were taken to a hospital in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. OSCE officials said their vehicles apparently were targeted, but they declined to say which side was responsible.

Serbian officials openly have accused Western governments, especially the United States, of supporting the guerrillas, while the rebels are suspicious that some monitors have leaked information about their positions to Serbian forces.

A NATO force based in neighboring Macedonia is on standby to evacuate the OSCE monitors from Decani and has contingency plans to remove all 700 or so unarmed members of the mission, half of whom are American and British, should the conflict escalate.

Heavy fighting erupted today around villages dominated by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority close to the southern town of Stimlje. Serbian officials said government forces had killed at least 15 ethnic Albanian rebels while pursuing “terrorists” held responsible for the death of a policeman earlier this week. Reporters said Serbian Interior Ministry tanks shelled villages while rebel forces responded with mortars and sniper fire. Fighting subsided as darkness fell.

Walker said the observer mission would continue. “We are here unarmed,” Walker said. “We are here trying to bring peace to this place. [The shootings are] not going to deter us from continuing the mission. We’ve accomplished a great deal.”

But other OSCE officials, who asked not to be identified, said the mission was understating the gravity of the situation.

These views were reflected by U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme commander of NATO, who warned that a failure to reach a political settlement within six to eight weeks could lead to a resumption of full-scale war.

“Both sides are preparing for the conflict should negotiations fail,” Clark said while visiting NATO troops in Bosnia.

Last summer Yugoslav government forces launched a major offensive that destroyed scores of ethnic Albanian villages and drove as many as 300,000 people from their homes. More than 1,000 people were killed.

After months of mostly fruitless shuttling between the two sides by U.S. mediators seeking a lasting political settlement, Western governments have decided to try to bring the key figures among the divided Kosovo Albanian leadership to Vienna next month to try to hammer out a common platform. Rebel commanders also are being urged to attend the talks, which could lead to a joint peace conference with the Serbs.

U.S.-drafted proposals to give Kosovo broad political autonomy within the Yugoslav federation, which now comprises the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, have been rejected by both sides.

The Serbian minority in Kosovo, less than 10 percent of the province’s estimated 2 million people, is either fleeing or arming itself for a wider ethnic war.

The recent clashes in Kosovo have raised tensions between Serbia and Albania, with the Serbian government accusing its southern neighbor of providing a safe haven and supplies to the guerrillas. One option for Western governments is to help the weak Albanian government secure its border with Kosovo, but NATO estimates that this would require 15,000 ground troops.

%d bloggers like this: