Nightmare gets closer to reality Kosovo: The West has been wary of the densely populated Yugoslav province because of its potential for violence and much more bloodshed.

Sun Journal

March 08, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Since the crisis in Yugoslavia first grabbed American attention in 1992, the province of Kosovo has always been viewed as a special danger zone.

The war in breakaway Bosnia was ugly, shocking the West with ethnically motivated atrocities. But despite warnings that it could grow into a wider war, it never did. And after heavy U.S. airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs in 1995, the rival Serbs, Muslims and Croats signed an accord that has been held in place since then by NATO peacekeepers.

However, if serious violence broke out in Kosovo, all bets were off, according to Balkan experts in and out of government. The densely populated province, home to 2 million aggrieved ethnic Albanians surrounded by Serbs, was seen as a flash point that could set off a regionwide conflagration, drawing in neighboring Albania, Bulgaria and possibly even NATO members Greece and Turkey.

In the mind of Serbian nationalists, Kosovo has a particular significance. It was there, in 1389, that Serbs lost a decisive battle, opening the way for the Ottoman Empire to occupy the Balkan region for the next five centuries. It remains an enduring symbol to Serbs of their ethnic and religious heritage and suffering at the hands of outsiders.

Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, opened his career as a Serbian nationalist in Kosovo in 1987, inciting a cheering crowd of Serbs against ethnically Albanian police: "Never again will anyone defeat you."

Former President George Bush, who rejected sending U.S. military forces into Bosnia, treated Kosovo differently. On Christmas Day 1992, near the end of his presidency, Bush warned Milosevic that if a conflict broke out in Kosovo, the United States would be prepared to use military force against the Serbs.

The warning was later reaffirmed by President Clinton, who dispatched hundreds of troops to Macedonia as insurance against a wider war.

Last week, it began to appear that the nightmare scenario was finally becoming reality. Serbian police have launched a crackdown against a group of heavily armed Albanian separatists called the Kosovo Liberation Army. Last weekend, at least 24 people were reported killed in what Albanians in the province called a massacre.

"We are deeply, deeply concerned about the situation in Kosovo," the Clinton administration's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Robert S. Gelbard, told reporters last week. He had visited the province as trouble was mounting the week before and also met with Milosevic.

"We have been extremely clear with President Milosevic about the extraordinary danger of any kind of aggressive policies involving the military or police," he said.

But U.S. and British warnings so far have gone unheeded. Using helicopter gunships, Serbian police and paramilitary units again attacked the separatist ethnic Albanians on Thursday, this time displacing dozens of Serbs and Albanians.

Authorities put the death toll at 26 Albanians and two policemen, but Albanians said 51 were killed.

The next day, Serbian police said they had "destroyed the core" of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in central Kosovo, killing guerrilla leader Adem Jasari and capturing 30 of his fighters, Reuters reported.

Compared with the more than 200,000 killed and millions displaced earlier in the Yugoslav conflict, the level of bloodshed is still relatively slight. But the potential exists for much more.

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who are Muslims and cling to a separate culture and language, lost their autonomous status in 1989 with the collapse of Yugoslavian communism.

"The irony is that they actually had more autonomy under the Communists than they now have 10 years after the Communist regime fell," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. "It is the only place in Europe where young people can't actually get access to the university and be taught in their own native language."

But in an example of the shades of gray that permeate the ethnically tense Balkans, the Kosovo Liberation Army has resorted to terrorism to get its way, according to U.S. officials. The rebels claim to have assassinated more than 50 Serbian policemen and officials, according to a report in the New York Times.

Gelbard complained that the peaceful, democratic Albanian opposition in Kosovo is ineffectual, ceding influence to the violent forces. For their part, Serbs in Kosovo live in small ghettoes; many are fleeing the region.

Although the Albanians in Kosovo, called Kosovars, differ culturally from those in Albania proper, there are close ties between the two peoples. The Albanian government has warned ominously that it would be forced to act "as one nation" if war broke out.

The fear has long been that this could start a domino effect: Trouble could spread to neighboring Macedonia, which has a large Albanian minority. Greece, which has a historic claim to the name Macedonia, could then become embroiled. Turkey and possibly other Muslim nations might then join the fighting to protect their fellow Muslims.

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