Monday, July 10, 2006

Flashback to Kosovo's war

Kosovo hit the international headlines in the late 1990s when forces under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic attempted to suppress the ethnic Albanian majority's independence campaign.

Serbs and ethnic Albanians had vied for control in the region throughout the 20th century.

While Serbs latterly only made up about 10% of the population, the historic and emotional importance of the province for them was enormous.

Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their culture, religion and national identity.

The 1974 Yugoslav constitution laid down Kosovo's status as an autonomous province of Serbia. Pressure for independence mounted in the 1980s after the death of Yugoslav President Tito.

In the latter part of the decade, when Milosevic was number two in the Serbian Communist Party, he harnessed resentment over Kosovan influence within the Yugoslav federation.

At the same times, Serbs were complaining about persecution by the majority Albanians.

Milosevic, motivated by political opportunism became a champion of Serbian nationalism.

In 1987, he was sent to Kosovo and, spotting an opportunity, seized it.

In an impromptu televised address that made his reputation overnight, Milosevic promised Serbian demonstrators in Kosovo that "no-one dare to beat you again".

Two years later, when he became Yugoslav president, he set about stripping Kosovo of its autonomy. Serbian nationalism was on the march.

Mass protests

A passive resistance movement in the 1990s failed to secure independence or to restore autonomy, although ethnic Albanian leaders declared unilateral independence in 1991.

In the mid-1990s the ethnic Albanian rebel movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army stepped up it attacks on Serb targets.

By the summer of 1998, Albanians were mounting mass protests against Serbian rule and police and army reinforcements were sent into crush the KLA.

A deal to end the crisis was brokered by the international community in early 1999. The autonomy plan was reluctantly accepted by the ethnic Albanians but rejected by Milosevic.

The continued persecution of Kosovo Albanians led to the start of Nato air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999.

Meanwhile, a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo Albanians was initiated by Serbian forces. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. The international tribunal in The Hague said its investigators had found at least 2,000 bodies.

After 11 weeks of Nato bombing, Milosevic was forced to withdraw his troops and police, some 750,000 Albanian refugees came home and about 100,000 Serbs - roughly half the province's Serb population - fled. The UN was put in charge, pending agreement on whether Kosovo should become independent or revert to Serbian rule.

In May of that year, as the bombing was still going on, Milosevic became the first serving head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity, by the International Criminal Tribunal.

According to the indictment, Mr Milosevic and a number of his colleagues bore direct responsibility for crimes that are alleged to have included the deportation of almost 750,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murders of about 600 individually identified ethnic Albanians.

The indictment listed six specimen charges of crimes against humanity. It detailed massacres of ethnic Albanians in the towns of Srbica, Dakova and Velika Krusa, where men were separated from women and machine-gunned.

New trial

Later in 1999, investigations by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, including the interview of some 3,000 witnesses or survivors, uncovered a grim catalogue of murder, mutilation and rape.

It found that Serbs had carried out human rights abuses on a massive scale - but had also suffered appalling revenge attacks following the war.

Milosevic's trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity got under way in earnest in early 2002 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. By the time of his death in March 2007, the prosecution had completed its case but the defence was continuing.

The court was unable to establish legally what had actually happened in Kosovo

Ethnic Albanians were angry that Milosevic's death robbed them of a verdict.

As a result, the trial of senior Serbian officials on similar charges, that began on 10 July took on a new importance.


Milosevic was the first acting head of state to be indicted on war crimes; Graves in the town of Velika Krusa of ethnic Albanian killed in March 1999

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