December 7, 2000
Two weeks ago, hundreds of well-armed Albanian militants entered the demilitarized zone on the border of occupied Kosovo, ambushed and killed several Serbian police officers and occupied several villages. As of today, they still remain in most of their fortified positions, though the police recovered the village of Lucane [Luchane] without a shot.
Only three football fields separate the militants from the Serbian police. A little farther away are artillery and tanks of the Yugoslav Army. Behind them, tanks and checkpoints of NATO’s Kosovo occupation force, KFOR. It may not sound like a strong, or even tenable position. But they hold it, and possession is nine-tenths of the law. Or in this case, an argument.
President Kostunica is pledging a peaceful resolution, holding his troops at the outer perimeter of the three-mile DMZ around occupied Kosovo, and demanding that NATO does its job and stops the militants from crossing into the sovereign territory of Serbia. NATO, for its part, is redeploying forces and setting up a blockade that turns away some, but lets many more slip through. Officially, neither side can enter the zone without changing the Kumanovo Military-Technical Agreement, the armistice under which NATO’s 78-day terror-bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was halted. The militants of the so-called "UCPMB" know this, and exploit it to their full advantage. Lacking all arguments save those stemming from the business ends of their guns, they are holding hostage both Yugoslavia and NATO. The question is, for how long?
The Yugoslav Third Army – which successfully fought the KLA in Kosovo until Milosevic’s decision to surrender opened the door to NATO occupation – has been deployed along the DMZ, ready to respond to any attacks. So far, they are showing restraint. President Kostunica has full control of the troops. What might happen if the Albanian militants choose to engage the Army remains somewhat of a mystery.
Zoran Djindjic, President Kostunica’s treacherous right hand and the pretender to power in Serbia, provides some clues. He has already set up a "crisis committee headquarters" in the valley below the rebel positions. As if he’d already been elected Prime Minister of Serbia (he will have to wait until December 23 for that), Djindjic has pledged he would "eradicate the terrorists in the crisis zone in two days," when the moment comes. His determination to defend Serbia now is so strong, he even joined forces with the Serbian State Security chief, General Rade Markovic, whose resignation and imprisonment he demanded most vehemently as late as last week.
President Kostunica condemned this sort of rhetoric. He probably recalls that the top Yugoslav general said a similar thing about the KLA when presented with the Rambouillet ultimatum in the spring of 1999. That statement – that Yugoslav Army could "wipe out the terrorists in two weeks" – was later used by apologists for NATO’s terror-bombing as proof that Belgrade planned "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo.
Understandably, Kostunica does not want to do anything to provoke NATO again, and probably counts on the Alliance to actively oppose the militants and eliminate the problem it is largely responsible for creating. Although this would be a welcome sight, it is highly unlikely. NATO has not acted while the KLA looted, murdered and expelled non-Albanians throughout Kosovo during the 17 months of occupation. It has stood passive for months as Albanians crossed into the DMZ freely, training under the noses of American sentries and transporting weapons into the zone at Dobrosin [Dobroshin].
Meanwhile, Djindjic’s belligerence is likely scoring him points with Serbian patriots, who are incensed by what they rightfully see as the last straw in Albanian attempts to challenge Serbian sovereignty. Djindjic opposed NATO’s bombing in 1999 only because it strengthened Milosevic’s position; otherwise, he fully supported the Alliance’s actions. Now he sees an opportunity to be a greater patriot than Kostunica in the eyes of the Serbian public – which could well strengthen his bid for ultimate power in Serbia.
Then there is the matter of the KLA. Officially disbanded – or converted into the so-called "Kosovo Protection Corps" – the separatist militia has been reincarnated as the UCPMB. The two supposedly different formations have the same insignia, the same salute, the same organization, weaponry, are commanded by the same bearded men with pseudonyms. UCPMB’s "soldiers" are Kosovo Albanians, by and large. There is, in fact, no difference between Albanians on either side of the DMZ.
The UCPMB walks, looks and quacks like a duck, i.e. the UCK (Albanian for KLA). NATO’s interception of weapons, uniforms and ammunition, and its detention of armed Albanians trying to cross the border is not an indication that the KLA is trying to "help out" its brethren across border of occupied Kosovo. It is, rather, a confirmation that the two formations are actually one and the same.
Media treatment of the UCPMB invokes memories of the KLA as well. Shrouded in the veil of mystery, its goal supposedly the "liberation" of Albanians "imprisoned" by living in Serbia, the supposedly new militia is creating a similar climate in the media as the KLA did three years ago. Supposedly, NATO and the Western media have adopted a stern tone towards the militants, though stopping short of calling them "terrorists." Not that it would have made a difference; despite being labeled a "clearly terrorist organization" by American diplomat Robert Gelbard in 1998, the KLA managed to create an aura of a popular movement for liberation from "Serb apartheid," a resistance movement against the "Milosevic genocide." Western media backed up the KLA with words as NATO planes did with bombs in the spring of 1999, though officially – again – NATO denied any involvement with the KLA. Perhaps that is why they rolled into Kosovo together, black-clad KLA stormtroopers perched atop NATO tanks in June 1999.
Like the KLA, UCPMB claims it is a local militia made up of ordinary people, forced to fight for their rights by a repressive and racist Serbian regime. They explain that the areas with Albanian population were separated from Kosovo in 1957, and should join a future independent Kosovo. It has already been marked "Eastern Kosova" on the maps of Greater Albania, openly circulated in the West.
So what if that would violate all articles of international law, the Helsinki charter on inviolability of borders, and the Kumanovo agreement? NATO already broke every law in the book when it targeted Serbia last year. Back then, the justification was that Albanians’ human rights were in danger. Now there are reports of Albanians fleeing the area, "forced" out by their fear of Serb response to the militants’ attack. Enough for a humanitarian crisis yet?
This strategy is identical to that of the KLA. Though well-armed, Albanian militants don’t stand a chance against the Yugoslav Army. But they do not have to. All they need to do is create a crisis that would set off a mass exodus from the area, then call it "ethnic cleansing" and demand international intervention. Sounds familiar? The words of Muhamet Xhemaili, the militants’ commander in Konculj [Kon’chull], should, as he calls on the "international community to provide political and if necessary military help to resolve the situation".
Xhemaili, by the way, wears a KLA patch on his shoulder, and among his followers are 16-year-olds from Pristina who have come "maybe to kill a Serb."
If an "army" – self-proclaimed or otherwise – crosses a border of a sovereign country, that constitutes an act of war. Yet the special envoy of the UN Refugee Commissioner (UNHCR), Eric Morris, recently made a statement that reads like a collection of clichés, official ambiguities and doublespeak. Morris speaks of a "tense situation" threatening to "get out of hand" and "out of control"; with potential for "something going really, really wrong." That is why "confidence-building measures" are required as soon as possible…
Confidence-building? Between heavily armed cop-killing secessionists and the lightly armed policemen, who are literally driven to suicide by NATO’s insistence that last year’s armistice must be obeyed to the letter; under that agreement, the Serbian police is allowed only side arms inside the DMZ. There is no word about any "liberation army" carrying rockets, mortars and machine guns around, shooting up pistol-armed cops.
To show they are doing something, NATO commanders have deployed their occupation forces along the DMZ with have orders to stop men of military age from crossing. Albanians simply walk through the woods, and NATO officers justify their incompetence by claiming that there are far fewer militants across the border than official reports indicate.
So far, no one has run out of excuses: NATO for not doing anything – yet tying the hands of the Serbs if they try; the Albanians for engaging in terrorism and separatism, because they have seen it eventually gets rewarded by the powers that be; and the Serbs for staying put but preparing for a fight, because they cannot simply give in, and they do not want to provoke NATO.
Much depends on what any of the protagonists in the situation does next. Kostunica is comparatively at the biggest disadvantage; he has to do something about the situation – and soon. Both NATO and the Albanians , enjoying the advantage of positioning, can simply sit and wait. If Kostunica attempts to wait them out, he may face a stronger and more hostile Zoran Djindjic behind his back within three weeks. The pressure is enormous. What started out as a pack of bandits on the border could easily bring about the fall of the current government, and with it the final collapse of Yugoslavia. If he wants to preserve his country, his job and peace, Kostunica is fast running out of options.
On this day, fifty-nine years ago, the Japanese navy attacked the US at Pearl Harbor because Japan believed it was left no other choice. That act set the empire of the rising sun out on a path of self-destruction. As sun sets tonight on the bristling guns in Presevo valley, there is still a multitude of choices facing NATO, the Albanians and the Serbs. There are, however, only a few good ones.
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