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Tuesday, June 9, 1998 Published at 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK

World: Europe

Opinion: West must act early on Kosovo

[ image: Paddy Ashdown]
Paddy Ashdown
Paddy Ashdown, Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, has taken a close interest in the conflicts which accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. He writes here exclusively for BBC News Online ahead of a fact-finding mission he is to make later this month to the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has become the latest flashpoint in the region:

Over the past ten years, Slobodan Milosevic has been ruthlessly suppressing the majority ethnic Albanian people of Kosovo.

Kosovo has for centuries been a source of contention and conflict, but its Albanian and Serb inhabitants have, for the most part, lived together in relative harmony. Under Tito's administration, the province enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, and Albanian Kosovars a large degree of freedom.

Systematic oppression

Since Milosevic's rise to power, any harmony that existed in the province has been shattered.

Tito's 1974 constitution has been repealed, the Kosovan assembly has been dissolved, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians who held state jobs have been sacked, immunisation programmes for Kosovar Albanian children have been greatly reduced, and arbitrary arrest and police intimidation have become routine.

[ image: A fighter of the Kosovo Liberation Army watches a road in the province's Drenica region]
A fighter of the Kosovo Liberation Army watches a road in the province's Drenica region
It is against this background that we must assess the current situation in Kosovo. After ten years of systematic oppression, the Albanian population have become increasingly radicalised, the KLA have more popular support in the province than ever before, and are more heavily armed.

As Slobodan Milosevic's brutalisation of the Albanian population continues, there is now a chilling prospect of a full-scale military conflict in Kosovo.

Terrifying new problem

For a number of months, Western Leaders have been condemning the actions of the Yugoslav President, yet the shelling and burning of Albanian Kosovar villages continues and, indeed, increases.

Six years ago, when Britain last held the EU Presidency, we missed the decisive opportunity to agree to early action in Bosnia, with the terrible consequences that we all saw.

We must not miss that opportunity again, now that we are confronted with a terrifying new problem in Kosovo.

[ image: Thousands of refugees have already fled the fighting]
Thousands of refugees have already fled the fighting
It is vitally important that the West take firm action now to contain the situation inside the borders of Kosovo. Refugees are already pouring into neighbouring Albania whose people look on in horror at the crimes committed against their brothers in Kosovo, and may not remain passive for much longer.

We must make it absolutely clear to President Milosevic that we will not tolerate the shelling of Kosovar villages and other fundamental breaches of human rights in the province.

Immediate steps

There are three things that the West can do now to try and prevent any further escalation of the crisis in Kosovo:

  • One, to further reinforce the United Nations troops on the Macedonian border;

  • Two, to deploy a screening force of NATO troops to ensure the integrity of the Albanian border;

  • And three, to make it absolutely clear to President Milosevic that any actions in gross contravention of international human rights, which have the effect of destabilising other nations in the region, will be treated by the international community as an act in violation of international law.

This time the West must take strong preventative action early, rather than be left in a position of only being able to do too little too late.

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