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Monday, March 9, 1998 Published at 13:21 GMT

Special Report

Kosovo: Key facts and background

The latest clashes in the Serbian province of Kosovo have brought out into the open the tensions that have been simmering between Kosovo's majority Albanian population and the Serbian authorities for more than 10 years.

Barnaby Phillips on the background to the crisis (3'51")
Serbs regard Kosovo as an integral part of their nation and history. Yugoslav President Slobidan Milosevic used Kosovo to gain power in the eighties.

The area is the heart of national folklore as it is the site of the 1389 defeat of Medieval Serb heroes by Ottoman Turks, a key event in national consciousness.

Key facts behind the current tension

  • Ethnic Albanians started settling in Kosovo during Turkish rule and their numbers grew especially after the Second World War.

  • The population ratio began to change, and the trend has continued ever since. Owing largely to a Serb exodus and the higher Albanian birth rate, Kosovo now has a 90% Albanian majority.

  • Kosovo was given autonomy in the revised Yugoslav constitution of 1974, allowing Albanian language schools, the observing of Islamic holy days and giving the province representatives on the old collective federal presidency.

  • The Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic took away the province's autonomous status in 1989 and put in considerable amounts of Serbian police and troops, declaring the Albanian language unofficial and changing school curricula.

  • This led to a boycott by Albanians of official institutions and services and the creation of a parallel government, with its own health, taxation and education systems.

Why violence has erupted now

Tension has escalated in the last two years since the emergence of the clandestine Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1996.

[ image: Most Albanians want a peaceful solution to the crisis]
Most Albanians want a peaceful solution to the crisis
The shadow Albanian administration is not in favour of achieving change through violent means, but its failure to win any concessions from President Milosevic has encouraged groups like the KLA.

It has claimed responsibility for several attacks in which over 50 people were killed.

Earlier this year, the KLA also claimed responsibility for an attack in neighbouring Macedonia, which - if confirmed - would mark the widening of its theatre of action.

The KLA is believed to be funded by Albanian exiles in Germany and Switzerland using arms smuggled from Albania.

It is the actions of this group, which has so far received no political backing from the ethnic Albanian leadership, that have led to the Serbian police crackdown in Kosovo.

International community tries to mediate

[ image: Slobidan Milosevic: uncompromising attitude to Kosovo]
Slobidan Milosevic: uncompromising attitude to Kosovo
The US envoy Robert Gelbard visited the province in late February, less than a week before the violence, to try to mediate but came away empty-handed.

He indicated that while some international sanctions against Serbia were lifted after the signing of the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the so-called 'outer-wall' of sanctions which came into force in 1991 will continue until Belgrade grants greater self-rule to Kosovo.

These bar Yugoslavia from membership of international financial institutions and access to vital western credit.

British foreign secretary Robin Cook also talked with Mr Milosevic on behalf of the EC in early March, but made no progress.

The Contact Group of Western powers has said that it favours neither the status quo nor independence for Kosovo, but an enhanced status within Yugoslavia.

Diplomatic failure could be disastrous

The nightmare scenario for NATO and other observers is instability in Kosovo spilling into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of the population.

In turn, this could spread trouble to Greece and to Turkey, although this is less likely now than at the peak of the Yugoslav civil war.

The Albanian government has already warned that it will 'act as one nation' if war breaks out between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

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