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Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 00:55 GMT

Kosovo: Another Balkan tragedy

The human face of the Kosovo conflict - a soldier in the KLA militia

The killing and suffering which has followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia over the last few years should have made it difficult to be surprised at any new conflict in the Balkans.

Review of the Year
Yet the sheer scale of the upheaval and the bitterness of the fighting in Kosovo between ethnic Albanians and Serbs still shocked many observers in 1998.

This feeling was perhaps all the stronger for Kosovo being a place which few people had heard of before the Spring. It was less of a surprise for those who knew of the bloody history of the area, long disputed by Serbs and Albanians.

Sparks smoulder into flame

[ image: A funeral for massacred Kosovars in March]
A funeral for massacred Kosovars in March
There were
isolated reports of trouble earlier in the year, but violence did not really impinge on the world's consciousness until late February and early March.

Then, the Serb police took action against Albanian separatists of the Kosovo Liberation Army - but this action included using tanks and helicopter gunships and dozens of people were killed.

Mass demonstrations followed and despite Serb protests that the deaths had been caused by ethnic Albanian "terrorists", the European Union began to get involved in an attempt to stop the trouble spreading.

"It's part of a worsening security situation"
The BBC's David Loyn reports

The Serb response to the growing outside pressure was to hold a referendum in April which - to no-one's surprise - rejected by 95% any outside mediation. The six-nation Contact Group - the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States - followed this by imposing sanctions.

Failure of talks

[ image: Ibrahim Rugova: President in name only]
Ibrahim Rugova: President in name only
The Albanians, meanwhile, had tried to assert their independence by holding elections for their own parliament and president - Ibrahim Rugova.

The Serbs declared that the parliament had no authority and when it eventually met in July, armed police broke it up.

This unwillingness to talk extended to the Albanian side and when Serb President Milan Milutinovic arrived in Pristina in March for discussions, he was ignored.

In May, US envoy Richard Holbrooke began a round of shuttle diplomacy which for a time seemed to be making some progress. But by the following month it was clear that the fighting was continuing and that thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were fleeing from Serb forces.

Refugees flee atrocities

Albania, to where many of the refugees fled, accused the Serbs of ethnic cleansing. Reports of atrocities also became widespread.

[ image: Ethnic Albanian refugees were forced into the hills of the province]
Ethnic Albanian refugees were forced into the hills of the province
The growing tide of refugees prompted the international community to try to act.

Nato began to prepare a military response with Britain accusing the Serbs of "barbarism" and trying to persuade the US and Russia to agree a joint position.

Russia, however, is a traditional ally of Serbia, and President Yeltsin opposed sending troops to the region.

But despite this reluctance, Russia joined with the G7 industrialised nations on 12 June in demanding that Serbia end the attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and allow refugees to return.


Nato had already threatened military action "within days" and the UK sent Jaguar ground attack aircraft to the region. Nato performed some aerial sabre-rattling by carrying out air manoeuvres over neighbouring Macedonia and Albania - demonstrating its ability to bring firepower to bear quickly if required.

[ image: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic: The focus of international pressure]
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic: The focus of international pressure
The day after talks in Russia, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to halt the offensive, resume negotiations and allow mediation.

But if the Albanians were encouraged by this, they would have been disheartened by Nato repeating that an independent Kosovo was out of the question.

The prospect of forceful Nato action was also reined back by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's warning that it needed a UN mandate before it could act.

Angel on hunger strike

In July, the woman dubbed the 'Angel of Mostar' for her relief work in Bosnia, was arrested in Kosovo and jailed for crossing the border from Albania illegally while bringing in medicines. Sally Becker responded by going on hunger strike and for a time there were fears for her life.

Ms Becker ended her action after a week and she was released soon after, complaining of having been physically and emotionally abused while in custody.

She refused to be cowed by the experience, however, and returned to the area - taking aid to displaced people in Albania. For her pains, she was attacked twice - once being shot in the leg in what she said was a Serb assassination attempt.

Ms Becker later resigned as head of her aid charity, citing lack of support from the UK press and government. She told BBC News Online the negative reaction made her feel like 'nobody's Angel' rather than the 'Angel of Mostar'.

Serbs launch offensive

While all this was going on, the Serb forces launched another major offensive in July against the KLA, causing a fresh refugee crisis.

Another Serb offensive starts
The BBC's Mark Laity reports

The Serbs quickly made gains and by August the fighting had spread into areas previously untouched by the conflict.

By the middle of the month, the Serbs had taken the final KLA stronghold in Kosovo, the strategically-important village of Junik, after a three-week siege.

[ image: The Tomahawk cruise missile: A likely part of any Nato attack...]
The Tomahawk cruise missile: A likely part of any Nato attack...
Nato, meanwhile, was carrying out military exercises.

The international community was calling for restraint, but nothing actually happened to stop the fighting.

By September, however, evidence of ethnic cleansing by the Serbs was beginning to emerge.

The UN called on Serbia to halt the offensive and Nato began final preparations for military intervention. UK Defence Secretary George Robertson said Britain was "getting the ammunition ready".

To the brink

President Milosevic appeared to detect that the international community meant business this time and announced on 28 September that his troops had achieved victory and were returning to barracks. The military will was being hardened, however, by evidence of atrocities committed by Serbs.

Evidence of new atrocities in Kosovo
The BBC's David Loyn reports

The Serbs blamed media distortion, but their actions were condemned by the United Nations. The Russians again tried to broker a solution, but the momentum appeared to be behind a Nato bombing campaign.

[ image: ...though many feared no real progress would be made without ground troops]
...though many feared no real progress would be made without ground troops
Britons and other foreign nationals were advised to leave Serbia, the British embassy in Belgrade closed, charity workers pulled out of Kosovo and the people of Belgrade prepared to be bombed.

'Diplomacy backed by massive force'
The BBC's James Robbins reports

On 12 October, Nato announced that it was ready to use air strikes and was holding off only for last-minute talks.

The following day, President Milosevic backed down.

He agreed to UN demands to halt the offensive, allow refugees to return to their homes and allow in 2,000 observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The news was greeted with relief in Serbia, where Mr Milosevic was seen as a saviour.

Focus goes from air strikes to verification of withdrawal
The BBC's David Eades reports

[ image: Milosevic finally withdrew his troops... for the time being.]
Milosevic finally withdrew his troops... for the time being.
The deadline was extended but fears of Serb prevarication led to Nato General Wesley Clark delivering an ultimatum.

The Serb tanks did finally roll out of Kosovo, but Nato remained dubious - keeping more than 400 warplanes on alert for an unspecified period.

Nato also agreed to set up a rapid reaction force to protect international monitors sent in to make sure the Serbs were keeping to their side of the bargain.

As winter drew near, fears grew for the refugees still hiding in the barren hills, though these later seemed to have been unfounded.

Back to the table

As winter set in, the emphasis returned to diplomacy. The Serbs put forward a hardline plan for the future of Kosovo - emphasising its status as part of the Yugoslav Republic.

Unsurprisingly, this was rejected by the Kosovars, though they did indicate they would accept a transitional status short of full independence.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke travelled to Yugoslavia for talks with President Milosevic in December, but the meeting was soured by the deaths of 30 Albanians and six Serbs. Mr Holbrooke described the situation as "very grave".

The mood of pessimism was also shared by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Looking forward to 1999, Mr Annan forecast all-out war in both Iraq and Kosovo unless all sides abided by their commitments.

Given what happened in Iraq less than 48 hours after his statement, the ordinary people of Kosovo must have been hoping that their leaders would take note of Mr Annan's prediction.

That hope was dashed as Christmas approached, however, when fighting began again as the Serbs launched another offensive in response to the KLA fortifying new positions.

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In this section

Sex, lies and impeachment

Northern Ireland: An historic year

The year the bubble burst

Kosovo: Another Balkan tragedy

Nature's turbulent year

Sport: Trials and triumph