BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Sunday, 12 March, 2000, 16:20 GMT
Behind the Kosovo crisis
Belgrade suffered endless nights of bombardment
BBC correspondent Allan Little presents his interpretation of Nato's war over Kosovo, with a detailed account of the conflict and an analysis of the politics and deal-making behind the scenes.

In March 1998, Serb forces rolled into a village called Prekaz in central Kosovo and, using tanks and armoured personnel carriers, levelled the home of a family called Jeshari. Adem Jeshari, Belgrade claimed, was a notorious terrorist.

"It was a normal policing action against a well-known criminal", Serb General Nebojsha Pavkovic, now the head of the Yugoslav armed forces, tells the programme. "It was successful. The other details I don't remember".

Kosovo: Special Report
The details Pavkovic chooses not to remember are chilling. Fifty-three members of the Jeshari family were murdered. In Milosevic's Serbia this is, of course, an all too normal policing action.

But, in the words of a prominent Kosovor Albanian journalist, it was also "a ruthless favour to the Kosovo Liberation Army".

Clarion call

The Prekaz massacre acted as a clarion call to thousands of young Albanian men who now flocked to join the ranks of hitherto small and shadowy band of fighters known as the UCK or KLA.

But more crucially Prekaz was also to change international public opinion.
KLA fighter
KLA: Courted by US
"As soon as we got the pictures of Prekaz," Veton Surroi, a respected opposition leader and newspaper publisher says, "we put them on the internet". The Albanians were inviting the world to share their pain.

In the months that followed the KLA played a subtle but deadly game in which the willingness of the Serb police and Yugoslav army to commit atrocities against civilians was skillfully manipulated to coax the international community into action.

Moral Combat - Nato at War shows how the United States, which had described the KLA as "terrorist", now sought to form a relationship with it.

Commando force

The State Department thought more and more of this elusive Cornfield Commando force as freedom fighters engaged in a legitimate armed struggle against a brutal oppressor.

In January 1999, 45 Albanians were found dead outside the village of Racak after a Serb attack the previous day. It happened in the middle of what was supposed to be a ceasefire, brokered by the US envoy Richard Holbrooke three months earlier. That massacre changed everything.

"Spring has come early," US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told her colleagues, acknowledging that she had been expecting a resumption of hostilities, despite the ceasefire, once the winter snows had thawed.

Mrs Albright decided it was time for action. She told her European counterparts that she was coming to no more of the diplomatic meetings which would result in no action.
F 18 fighter
Air campaign by committee
She said she would now enter a peace process only if diplomacy was backed by the explicit and credible threat of force against Belgrade. She knew the outrage sparked by the Racak massacre would provide a limited window of opportunity to galvanise international resolve.

Mrs Albright was right. The European allies agreed. A last-ditch effort to find a settlement was convened by the British and French at Chateau Rambouillet, outside Paris.

The Europeans, earnestly, sought an agreement that both sides could accept. But they also agreed with the Americans that any peace agreement would have to be enforced by an international military presence.

Avoiding a repeat of Bosnia

The leading allies were agreed that this force would have to be a Nato force. None wanted to repeat the very bruising experience of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in neighbouring Bosnia during the 1990s.

The Americans knew that because it had to be Nato, the chances of the Serbs accepting the deal were very small. They had a second acceptable outcome in mind.

"That meant the Serbs rejecting the plan and the Albanians accepting it," Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin told me.

Then, he added, there would be clarity where previously there had been confusion, clarity as to who was to blame, as to who Nato should oppose and who Nato should support.

It took weeks, but the US finally persuaded the Albanians to accept the plan. The Serbs rejected it. The European allies found themselves committed to the use of force against a sovereign European state.

But President Milosevic was not cowed. He was preparing to dramatically raise the stakes. Before the first bomb was dropped his forces moved into position and started executing the biggest campaign of forced deportation since the Second World War.

Nato air campaign

By the end of the first week of the Nato air campaign, hundreds of thousands of deportees were crossing the border into Albania and Macedonia.

Three miles above them, Nato found themselves powerless to halt it. Nato's stated objectives were now a hostage to fortune. President Clinton had said on the first night that the purpose of Nato's actions was "to halt an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians".

Washington was shocked. A war that had been entered into with such confidence, and which those who had advocated it believed would be over very quickly, was now spiralling out of control.

There were a couple of times when I felt I just can't do this any more. We're just not doing this right and I owe it to my people to stand up and say we're just not doing this right

General Michael Short
The strains in the Nato alliance began to tell. American General Michael Short, the head of the air campaign, considered resignation.

This veteran combat pilot, who had flown hundreds of missions in Vietnam and whose devotion to those under his command is striking and beyond dispute, was so appalled by the orders he was being given that "there were a couple of times when I felt I just can't do this any more. We're just not doing this right and I owe it to my people to stand up and say we're just not doing this right".

He did say that. He argued it up the chain of command. He asked for permission to go after major, fixed strategic targets in Serbia proper.

That permission was withheld and he was told to keep going after small, mobile targets in Kosovo itself, targets he believed were impossible to find.

On many days, he says, his pilots had to drop as many as half their bombs on dump sites, known to be empty and of no value.

The general blames the politicians for allowing public opinion to dictate military strategy. He also blames the nature of Nato.

"This is my first time fighting a war with 19 partners," he says, adding: "It was war by lowest common denominator."

Security concerns

At the same time, Nato commanders were growing increasingly concerned about the security of their internal battle plans.
Thousands of refugees fled
We have learned that a secret US investigation, carried out after the air campaign had ended, concluded that the Serbs had access to the highly sensitive air tasking orders, or ATOs.

Sources at Nato told us that in the second week of the campaign the generals found to their horror that the ATOs were distributed on an internal Nato computer system called Chronos, and that no fewer than 600 people had access to this system.

They immediately restricted that number to 100. The internal US investigation, which remains classified, concluded that when this was done, the effect on what the Serbs appeared to know was immediate.

No spy has yet been caught and Nato insists that there is no evidence that any spy was operating.

Nato does concede that the number of people who had access to the ATOs was tightened up.

Pentagon sources confirm this. They also say that the system deployed was the same for that used in the policing of the no-fly agreement in neighbouring Bosnia.

But that is a peace time operation, established by agreement. Commanders of that operation wanted their plans distributed widely because it was safer for the aircraft pilots that as many people as possible should know why they were there.

It remains mystifying that such a system was then simply inherited in the wholly different circumstances of the air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Deepening strains

As the air war progressed and intensified, strains within the alliance deepened. In April, the British Government began to argue publicly that Nato would have to consider a ground invasion option.

There was irritation at the very public way the British Government was pushing the ground troops option

Jamie Rubin
They believed a decision on this would have to be taken soon so that the troops would be in place to launch a ground invasion before winter.

This angered the Americans. "There was irritation at the very public way the British Government was pushing the ground troops option," says Jamie Rubin, especially since inevitably it meant pressing for the deployment of American ground troops.

Robin Cook and Tony Blair went to Washington and were persuaded by their US allies not to have the debate in public. The need to preserve the public face of Nato unity took precedence, for now, over the need to address urgent questions of military deployment.

One US official conceded: "The British were told - look if you think you've come here to turn the president, it's not going to happen."

By May, though, Germany and Russia had, together, opened a secret back channel to Mr Milosevic himself. It involved the services of an inconspicuous Swedish financier called Peter Castenfelt.

He went to Moscow to meet the Russian security services, the very men Mr Milosevic believed would eventually come to the rescue of the Serbs. They told him to tell Mr Milosevic that they had decided to throw their lot in with President Yeltsin.

Mr Castenfelt was smuggled into Belgrade by the Russian secret service and over four days held a series of secret meetings with Mr Milosevic. He told them the message from the Moscow security establishment was "Exit Now".

By the time the official international envoys, Marti Ahtisaari of Finland and Viktor Chernomyrdin arrived in Belgrade at the beginning of June to try to press President Milosevic to end the war, the Serbian leader had already made up his mind. The Swedish envoy's secret mission had been decisive.

Ten days later Nato troops rolled into Kosovo with Slobodan Milosevic's consent.

The BBC documentary Moral Combat: Nato at War was transmitted on Sunday 12 March, 2000 on BBC2
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories