By Don North
As Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic plays cat and mouse with NATO over Kosovo -- moving some troops out, then slipping others in -- his scheming is made much easier by this year's sharp decline in fortunes of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA.
In early March, the KLA numbered an estimated 10-12,000 armed fighters and controlled about 40 percent of the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The KLA's goal of an independent government responsive to the ethnic Albanian majority seemed within reach.
But Milosevic, freed from his northern troubles in Bosnia, unleashed his army and police to the south against Kosovo in late winter of this year.
By early fall, the Serb "scorched-earth" tactics, the assassination of key KLA leaders and internal dissension had forced the KLA back into small isolated pockets as the cold weather again approached.
Milosevic's military successes benefited, too, from an uncertainty among American policymakers. With U.S. troops already committed as peacekeepers in Bosnia, the Clinton administration hoped to avert a widening circle of disorder in the Balkans.
Kosovo was seen as the first rock tossed into the pond. Washington apparently feared that a KLA military victory and the violent formation of an ethnic-Albanian Kosovo could have a rippling effect, inspiring similar uprisings among ethnic Albanians in neighboring Macedonia. That, in turn, had the potential for pulling Greece into a war to protect Macedonia.
Fearing the potential of new disorder roiling the Balkans, Washington made clear that it favored a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo problem. The Clinton administration saw the KLA as an obstacle to that course.
One American diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington gave Milosevic a green light to "take the KLA down a peg." U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, reinforced that impression when he visited Belgrade and termed the KLA "without question a terrorist group."
On July 5, a State Department spokesman stated that the United States opposed independence for Kosovo "won by force of arms."
By then, however, Milosevic needed little encouragement. He was already deep into his strategy of pacifying Kosovo. Early in the year, Milosevic started that campaign by dispatching his feared Interior Ministry forces to carry out a new wave of "ethnic cleansing" and intimidation of the Albanian majority.
Serb forces first moved to cut off smuggling routes from Albania, a former communist state where near anarchy reigned and government armories had been looted. Mule trains carrying thousands of stolen Albanian AK-47s had snaked their way over mountain roads, across the Albanian border and into Kosovo and Montenegro.
To stop the smuggling of weapons to KLA forces, Serb commanders stationed troops along the border and mined the roadways. Gradually, the flow of weapons slowed to a trickle.
The Serb army also was winning inside Kosovo. On March 5, with a large advantage in armor and artillery, the Serbs launched an offensive against the Drenica region, long considered a bastion of anti-Serb resistance.
The KLA, which had dug in for set-piece battles rather than relying on hit-and-run tactics, was overwhelmed and suffered heavy losses.
Among the dead were the KLA's regional commander, Adem Jashari, and 22 members of Jashari's family. Serb authorities celebrated Jashari's death. A powerful clan chieftain in Drenica, Jashari had trained in Albania and had been convicted in absentia for killing a Serb policeman.
Serb forces soon were sweeping across central and western Kosovo, waging a scorched-earth campaign. The Serbs used artillery, tank cannons and 20mm guns to destroy Albanian villages, farms, crops and animals. Some hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes.
The Serbs allegedly targeted individual KLA leaders, including those outside Yugoslavia. In September, two armed men ambushed Ahmet Krasniqi, a leading anti-Serb military strategist. The 50-year-old Krasniqi was living in the Albanian capital of Tirana and was shot to death as he entered his home.
Krasniqi was buried with full Albanian military honors and was praised for organizing anti-Serb forces in Bosnia as well as in Kosovo. At the funeral, another Kosovo leader, Ibrahim Shala, accused the Serb Secret Service of arranging Krasniqi's assassination.
While some observers shared Shala's suspicion that the orders came from Belgrade, the trigger men were believed to have been "wet ops" specialists from the former Albanian Secret Service, known as the Sigurimi.
When the KLA did counter-attack in Kosovo, it often stooped to its own campaign of terror and "ethnic cleansing" against the Serb minority, according to human rights workers. More than 80 Serb civilians disappeared in Kosovo and were believed murdered. Thousands of other Serbs fled the province.
Still, the combination of battlefield defeats, elimination of key leaders and destruction of ethnic Albanian villages forced the KLA onto the defensive and back into remote strongholds. As the KLA retreated, a small rival guerrilla movement, known as the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, or FARK, began operating from northern Albania.
Through the coming winter, the KLA will face a number of daunting challenges: adopting more effective guerrilla tactics, closing internal schisms within the anti-Serb forces, and building broader support among influential political sectors, such as intellectuals and clan leaders.
Meanwhile, Milosevic must confront -- or finesse -- international condemnation for his bloody strategies. Though at press time the threat of NATO air strikes remained, Milosevic appeared to have blocked any immediate danger of a Kosovo secession.
Keeping Kosovo as part of greater Serbia represents an important psychological victory for Milosevic's Serb nationalist movement, which views Kosovo as the center of the ancient Serb civilization.
Kosovo figured in Milosevic's personal rise to power. In 1987, as the old communist Yugoslavia fell apart, Milosevic delivered a powerful speech at the ancient battlefield in Kosovo.
At the battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1389, Serb King Lazar and his Christian soldiers valiantly stood their ground against a superior Turkish army. At a site called "the Field of Blackbirds," Lazar and 77,000 of his men died.
Six centuries later, Milosevic turned to that historical moment as inspiration during another national crisis. He cleverly exploited the glorious defeat to rally his political supporters. Milosevic emerged as a national hero and took over the still-potent Communist Party.
Milosevic also moved to tighten Serb control over Kosovo whose Serb population had declined to 10 per cent or less. By 1989, Milosevic had pushed the Serbian parliament into abolishing Kosovo's political autonomy. Parliament also removed Kosovo's Albanian leadership and closed the schools.
From a largely autonomous province of Yugoslavia set up by World War II hero Marshall Broz Tito, Kosovo became essentially a colony of nationalist Serbia.
The Serb nationalist frenzy exacerbated the deep ethnic resentments that have plagued the Balkans for centuries. Serbs, Croats and Muslims -- who had lived together in peace under Tito -- suddenly were battling for control of Bosnia. The phrase "ethnic cleansing" entered the world's vernacular.
While the bloody war in Bosnia raged through the early 1990s, tensions also increased in Kosovo. Political leaders demanded independence for the province and its ethnic-Albanian majority. Yet, with Milosevic holding firm, patience for a non-violent solution ran short. An armed resistance took shape.
By early 1998, the growing strength of the KLA represented a new level of challenge to Milosevic. But with NATO peacekeepers enforcing a truce in Bosnia, Milosevic finally could turn his attention to Kosovo. The stage was set for another Balkan tragedy.
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