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June 13, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 349
Decani and Consequences

Inviting Catastrophe

by Dejan Anastasijevic

During the last days of May, while all eyes were directed at Montenegro, the Army and the MUP of Serbia began a long awaited offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) along the southwestern rim of Kosovo on the border with Albania.  It was calculated that the temporary absence of journalists and diplomats would permit our security forces to work in peace for at least several days, and that after the whole thing was finished, it would be too late for a serious reaction from the outside world.  Just as on many earlier occasions, this calculation proved incorrect.

For some time now the situation in that region has been unbearable from a security point of view: having established strong bases in the villages along the Pec-Decani-Djakovic road, UCK was one step away from establishing a “liberated territory” in this area, with its center in Decani.  The conflicts between security forces and UCK have been a daily occurrence for weeks now: during the month of May, over a hundred people were killed in these conflicts (according to UN estimates), while during the first three days of the offensive, thirty-seven people perished.  Even though what is at issue is a very small geographic area, the success of this intention would bring a considerable advantage to UCK.  From a military point of view, the creation of this unrealized “Republic of Decani” would cut off the supply line for the Yugoslav Army’s outpost on the Albanian border, which would force the army to reduce or to altogether discontinue its control over this section of the border.  Looked at politically, UCK would receive an opportunity to strengthen its legitimacy not only  through establishing “government agencies” in this city, but also through the organization of some sort of “historical” meeting, like the meetings once held at Bihac and Jajce.

Police sources leaked that the action of clearing the Dacani road was supposed to take six days, from Friday, May 30, to Wednesday, June 3.  Of course, this deadline was broken, and the first journalists were allowed on the ground one week later.  A little earlier, on Sunday, June 7, a “picnic” was organized for foreign ambassadors, while in the meantime, American diplomats Christopher Hill and Richard Miles, as well as a member of the Albanian negotiation team, Fehmi Agani, visited Dacani.  Everyone testified to the fact that nearly all villages along the road were gutted or burnt to the ground. Dutch Ambassador Jan Sizoo described the scene as one of “destitution and despair.”  “That was not exactly a happy day,” stated Sizoo after his return.  “It was strange that there were no signs of life in the villages, except for groups of horses which wandered through the deserted streets, looking for something to eat.  That left a certain mark of sadness on the whole scene.”  Luckily, it turned out that the Albanian media reported that Decani “had lived through the fate of Vukovar”, and that this town “no longer exists” does not represent the real picture, just as the idyllic picture of normal life shown on Radio Television Serbia (RTS) is equally false.  The houses in the center of town carry clear marks of bullets and shrapnel, staple foods are bought at black market prices, while tens, and maybe even hundreds of people are accounted for as “missing”. Reuters Agency cited some very interesting testimony from an unnamed police source on the development of the operation.  “They were very well prepared — every Albanian house was like a fortress.”  The same source cited that for this reason it was necessary to destroy one house at a time.  “We did not have enough personnel for a different approach,” he stated.  Other testimonies indicate that light artillery were employed during the operation, mostly hand-held rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns, and there are also, for now, unconfirmed reports on the use of tactical aircraft.  More precise information about the total number of victims is still unavailable.  Beside the thirty-seven killed during the first three days of the offensive, it is calculated that at least as many perished in June.  Refugees represent a special problem.  According to United Nations estimates, there is a total of 65,000: around 10,000 have fled to Albania, 8,000 to Montenegro, while around 45,000 fled toward Drenica.

When accounts are settled, it is clear that the offensive in Decani, although on a larger scale, has much in common with what the police did three months earlier in Donji Prekaz.  Just like in Drenica, what is at issue is a badly planned and clumsily executed action in which many people got killed, with catastrophic political results.  Just as then, the regime attempted in the end to do damage control with unconvincing arguments, trying to persuade the rest of the world that everyone who was killed was a terrorist, that the supposed refugees were merely acting, and claim, in what is the height of cynicism, that “terrorists set fire to everything in their retreat, forcing people to flee” (in this way in 1991 they attempted to persuade us that the Croats destroyed Vukovar).  At that time, journalists and diplomats also went on organized visits to Prekaz and were shown captured weapons, bunkers, and trenches.  Then, as now, the main result of the police action was a renewed wave of radicalism among Albanians and a renewed pool of recruits for UCK.  Albanians, among whom stories of mass graves and executions of women and children are circulating, are counting less and less on negotiations, which UCK immediately exploited in order to issue a call for a general revolt.  Negotiations between the Serbian and Albanian teams have been postponed for a third time already, while all of Holbrook’s efforts to initiate dialogue threaten to go to waste.  The results are also being felt in the police and the army, whose members clearly know better than their commanders how futile this method of “dealing with terrorism” is.

Consequences on the foreign policy front threaten to be far more difficult: no rancor on the part of UCK or short-staffing of police can justify such destruction and loss of life.  Even though Decani can in no way be compared with Srebrenica, no one should be surprised by the reappearance of the expression “ethnic cleansing” in the vocabulary of western diplomatic chiefs — Serbia is paying with interest the credit which it incurred in Croatia and Bosnia.  It is simply that international factors — NATO, the UN, the Americans, the English, the French and others — are losing patience with Slobodan Milosevic and are beginning to consider more drastic measures.  What appeared unthinkable only several weeks ago,  direct intervention by NATO against Serbia, is now becoming the next logical move.

Even though statements by NATO officials and Western leaders continually stress that the placing of troops along the Yugoslav border, and even in Kosovo itself, should not be understood as intervention directed at an independent Kosovo, it should be kept in mind that there are purely practical circumstances which favor the UCK side in the eyes of NATO.  First of all, NATO troops will be positioned in territory which is largely controlled by UCK and its sympathizers.  Along with that, their mandate will out of necessity carry with it an element of threat. “If NATO only remains on the sideline, and Serbs begin a massacre, we will look ridiculous.  Besides that, many among us believe that with this we will only be doing Milosevic a service,” stated an unnamed official from this organization.  The time when the president of FRY could count on any kind of support from the West is clearly long gone.

Milosevic should also be concerned about the interest demonstrated by the Hague International Tribunal for War Crimes, whose Assistant Head Prosecutor Graham Bluit recently announced a motion for an official investigation into events in Kosovo.  Precisely because Kosovo is not Bosnia, everything the army and the police do there can be directly tied to the highest officials of FRY and Serbia.  It won’t be possible to transfer responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Likosani, Prekaz, and Decani to some “unorganized paramilitary formations” or some phantom “territorial defense”.  Furthermore, if the Tribunal’s officials discover the “signature” of some supposed volunteer from Bosnia in their investigation in Kosovo, and it now turns out that this volunteer is now an official in MUP of the Yugoslav Army, this will make the prosecution very happy.  Some more interesting details are already coming to the surface: Dutch television journalists discovered that one of the armored MUP vehicles used in the offensive is stolen.  It is a transport vehicle which the Bosnian Serbs stole from Dutch members of the UN in Srebrenica in 1995, when they were taken hostage.  “This is a very significant lead which we will pursue to the end,” stated Bluit to journalists from Nasa borba.

The worst thing is that Milosevic, who is described by the London’s Economist in its opening editorial as “probably the most successful nationalist in modern history”, is most likely calculating on provoking NATO intervention.  In any case, there are no indications that this intervention could be directed against him personally, but will rather be limited to controlling the Serbian army and police in Kosovo, so that Milosevic would fair just like Saddam Hussein after the withdrawal from Kuwait — that is to say, he will continue in power.  Beside that, the country will really find itself faced with foreign aggression, which could be exploited for various extreme measures on the domestic front.  In the event that no strength is mustered in Serbia for counteracting this scenario, the slogan “Slobo — Saddam!” could get newer, more authentic significance.

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