17. War in Kosovo 1998-1999

The three-month long 1999 Kosovo conflict, the NATO intervention, was the result of a failed political process to establish a dialogue to resolve the political and humanitarian crises which evolved in Kosovo. Attempts by the international community to bring the Kosovo-Albanians and the FRY and Serbs to find a solution to the status of Kosovo through dialogue had not delivered any agreement. This failure had been exacerbated after 1997 by attacks by Serb military and security forces on Kosovo-Albanians and the appearance and activity of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The three-month conflict developed into a massive humanitarian disaster as a policy of ethnic expulsion and the killings of civilians was implemented by FRY forces. There were large numbers of innocent victims of war crimes on both sides, in particular amongst Kosovo-Albanians, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of them. Hostilities were concluded in June with the signing of the Military and Technical Agreement between KFOR and the FRY and Serbia.

Serbian repression meant that on 1 October 1997 protests broke out among UP students and the wider population against the occupying powers. The Serbian police and army killed and massacred Albanians across Kosovo, and so to defend and liberate the Kosovo population the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged, first announcing its presence on 28 November 1997. Its platform for freedom and independence, for open society and democracy, was supported by the entire Albanian population. The KLA’s war intensified particularly after the heroic battle in Prekaz of the Jashari family, led by Adem Jashari.
The Serb occupying force put in motion a powerful military, police and propaganda machinery, not only against the KLA but also against the civilian population, a consequence of which were the terrifying scenes of barbarism of bloody squadrons, the killings and massacres of innocent and powerless people, the burning of homes, mass imprisonments etc.

The peaceful policy and the KLA fight had their own results. The war of the KLA entered a new phase after the Reçak massacre and the failure of the Rambouillet talks. In order to stop the explosion of Serbian crimes against the Albanians, there was military intervention by the international community. After three months of NATO’s bombing and ongoing campaigns by the KLA, the Yugoslav Army was forced to withdraw from Kosovo. Along with the KLA units, now NATO forces entered Kosovo. The UN established a civilian authority and NATO a military one. The KLA was transformed into the KPC.

Rexhepi, Fehmi and Frashër Demaj. Historia 5. Prishtina: Libri Shkollor, 2013, pages 99-106; Rexhepi, Fehmi. Historia 9. Libri Shkollor, 2013, pages 62-71, 76-78; Bajraktari, Jusuf, Fehmi Rexhepi and Frashër Demaj. Historia 10. Prishtina: Libri Shkollor, 2011, pages 199-207; Rexhepi, Fehmi and Frashër Demaj. Historia 11. Prishtina: Libri Shkollor, 2013, pages 211-221.

As for armed resistance during 1998 and 1999, they say that the daily acts of armed Albanian terrorist groups declaring themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army, their ransacking and confrontations with the forces of order, in which more civilians fell, caused a marked deterioration in the situation in Kosovo.
Eventually Western countries got involved, giving open support to the Albanians. After the unsuccessful talks at Rambouillet and Paris and the refusal of the Serbian group to sign the ultimatum demands for the withdrawal of the army and police from Kosovo in February 1999 led to NATO aggression which lasted from 24 March 1999 to 10 June 1999.
After 78 days of uninterrupted bombing, the army and the police withdrew from Kosovo. According to the terms of the Kumanova Agreement of 9 June 1999, the army had to withdraw five kilometres into its own territory from the administrative border with Kosovo (the safety cordon). The UN Security Council agreed Resolution 1244 on Kosovo, with which the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia was guaranteed.

Đurić, Đorđe and Momčilo Pavlović. Istorija 3. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2010, pages 251-253. Đurić, Đorđe and Momčilo Pavlović. Istorija 8. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2010, pages 186-187

Human rights abuses carried out by the Serbian regime against the Kosovo Albanians had encouraged the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, which first became visible in 1997. On 1 October 1997 Pristina University students organised protests demanding the right for Albanian students to return to the university.

Attacks by Serbian forces in the Drenica areas escalated in February 1998 culminating in the assault on the Jashari household in Prekaz in March 1998. Reports were coming in of an increasing number of civilians being killed by Serbs. Serbs were also being murdered and kidnapped. Serbian policy had shifted from being one of legislative discrimination to one of military assault.

At the time, it was not clear what the KLA was, and many Kosovars, including Ibrahim Rugova, saw it as a Serb provocation. The internationals, including the USA, were likewise uninformed and to a large degree unaware of the attacks already taking place on the ground in the province. In the middle of 1998 they started to learn more and have some contact with KLA formations. The KLA’s activities were seen as acts of terrorism as is stated in UNSC resolutions. The international community was at this time attempting to resolve the Kosovo crisis through a political process and were in continual talks with the Slobodan Milosevic.

The Contact Group, of which Russia was a member, and the UN were the main players in consolidating efforts to resolve the Kosovo crisis. UN resolutions called for dialogue, the withdrawal of the Serb special police and the cessation of activity by security forces affecting the civilian population. Particular concern was expressed about the continually deteriorating humanitarian situation. In September1998 the Security Council signalled its particular concern at the rise in the use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav army which had resulted in numerous civilian casualties and the displacement of over 230,000 Kosovo Albanians. They were the true victims as the KLA in accordance with the tactics of an underground army, which had neither the man power nor equipment to face opposing forces directly, tended to melt away from the villages that came under attack.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1199 regarding Kosovo adopted in September 1998 called for a cessation of hostilities on both sides, steps to be taken to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and for a meaningful dialogue without preconditions, with international involvement. In July1998 the Contact Group had called for an enhanced effort to start negotiations on the status of Kosovo. These were to be led by Christopher Hill, the US Ambassador in Skopje Macedonia. His talks formed a shuttle diplomacy talking to both sides separately. This process came to an end in December 1998 as both parties rejected his draft solution although that draft was largely the basis for the Rambouillet talks.

In October Richard Holbrooke had been sent by the USA as a Special Envoy for direct negotiations with Milosevic. An agreement in Belgrade was reached whereby the FRY police presence in Kosovo was drawn down to levels prior to February 1998 and serious negotiations were to be started. A Kosovo Verification Mission, KVM, was also agreed with the OSCE to monitor compliance with UNSC Resolution 1199. The KVM was set up. This agreement was seen as being unclear and ill-thought through as it included provisions which would be fundamentally unacceptable to Kosovo. The Kosovo delegation, which was part of the Hill process, felt the agreements had critically undermined the process.

On 13 October NATO had issued an activation order, an unprecedented step in international processes. Its objective was to avoid an immediate and overwhelming catastrophe in Kosovo, it had a humanitarian purpose. By this time in Kosovo there were about 300,000 displaced persons. About 30% had managed to find shelter in neighbouring countries. These figures were expected to rise and the threat of winter loomed.

The Holbrooke agreement had some limited effect with about 100,000 DPs returning to their homes in Kosovo. Repressions, killings and kidnappings, still continued on both sides.

The crunch moment in the crisis came with the killings of Kosovo Albanians in Racak in January 1999. These were seen as blatant humanitarian excesses committed by Serb forces. This took place against a background of a renewed Yugoslav military offensive which had started in December. Following this the Contact Group invited both sides to hold talks in Rambouillet outside Paris to reach a three-year interim agreement on Kosovo’s status. The conference was backed by a North Atlantic Council threat to use force. Yugoslavia was aware of the doubtful credibility of the threat of force.

The talks in Rambouillet started on 6 February. The Kosovo delegation included KLA representatives as the international community believed they should have ownership of the process and not be left outside to provide opposition. Hashim Thaci and not Ibrahim Rugova led the delegation. The negotiations continued for longer than originally planned but both sides at the end refused to sign the draft agreement, the main opposition in the Kosovo delegation coming from the KLA. Two weeks later the parties returned to Paris having been given time to consult the agreements in country. The agreement was called the Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-government. The Kosovo side agreed to sign but the Belgrade delegation refused. The international negotiators then travelled to Belgrade to make a final attempt to obtain Serbian agreement to the Rambouillet accord and cease offensive operations, which were being carried out by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. They failed. NATO then authorised the launch of a military operation “to avert a humanitarian catastrophe”.

The NATO air campaign started on 24 March and ended on 10 June 1999. The political cohesion of the Alliance was sustained throughout the campaign despite disagreements. NATO in its bombing campaign made substantial efforts to avoid civilian casualties but there were some serious mistakes namely the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, the bombing of Korishe/Korisa IDPs and a passenger train being struck by NATO bombs.

During these three months it was seen that the FRY forces had been engaged in a well-planned campaign to drive the Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo, destroy the foundations of their society and prevent them from returning. This military plan was called Operation Horseshoe. The NATO campaign whilst not being responsible for this Serb reaction had not factored into its planning such severe attacks on the population nor the massive displacement of population, which impacted on about 90% of the Kosovo-Albanian population. The majority of the victims, about 12,000, were civilians. Despite the military nature of the intervention there were very few military fatalities.

The conflict ended in June 1999 following the signing of the Military and Technical Agreement in Kumanovo, Macedonia. It was signed by the International Security Force, KFOR, FRY and Serbia. Prior to the signing there had been intensive diplomatic activity. The EU’s representative, President Ahtisaari of Finland, Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin and Mr Strobe Talbott, had negotiated directly with Milosevic. These negotiations enabled the NATO campaign to be concluded and the Kumanovo Agreement signed. This agreement required the removal and retreat of all Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and provided for a further security council resolution.

The number of Kosovo Albanians killed was about 10,000, the overwhelming majority of whom were killed by FRY forces in round-ups and executions of non-combatants. The raping of Albanian women during the conflict was particularly prevalent, as a form of political terror and of course a war crime. Looting, pillage and extortion of Kosovo-Albanian property was also widespread. After the end of the conflict in June 1999 killings, rapes and other crimes were committed against the Kosovo-Serb population, thousands of whom left Kosovo.

Judah, Tim, Kosovo: War and Revenge, London, 2002; Weller, Mark, Contested Statehood, Kosovo’s Struggle for Independence, Oxford, 2009; Independent International Commission on Kosovo, The Kosovo Report: Conflict, International Response, Lessons Learned, Oxford, 2000; Kandic Natasa , Liber Kujtimi I Kosoves 1998-2000, Pristina: Human Rights Fund, p.457.