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Ten Years After NATO Bombing Over Kosovo, Finger-Pointing Continues

Kosovar refugees cross the border between Yugoslavia and Albania in April 1999.
Kosovar refugees cross the border between Yugoslavia and Albania in April 1999.
By Ron Synovitz
Ten years after the start of NATO's air campaign over the Kosovo conflict, Serbian and Kosovar Albanian officials continue to point fingers at each other over who was responsible.

Human rights organizations have estimated that 500 civilians were killed by the 11 weeks of NATO air strikes that came in response to a violent crackdown by Serbian forces against Kosovo's majority ethnic-Albanian population. The air campaign also destroyed infrastructure across what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- including Serbia, its province of Kosovo, and Montenegro.

Officials in Belgrade, who are marking the anniversary by setting off memorial air-raid sirens, still claim civilian casualties there were much higher -- as many as 3,000.

Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac told Reuters he looks back on NATO's air strikes as a great mistake.

Tracer fire from air defenses light up the sky over Belgrade early on April 30, 1999.
"I must say that, my opinion, then and now hasn't changed. Then and now, I think it was a great mistake by the NATO alliance and that the bombing shouldn't have happened," Sutanovac said.

"I believe that at the crossroads of two millenniums and two centuries, it was absolutely unnatural that one nation -- and when I say nation I think about all the citizens of the then Yugoslavia -- to be bombed. And I think that the goals which NATO wanted to achieve could have been done with less energy, and citizens could have been spared from what happened."

But in Pristina, capital of what is now a newly independent Kosovo, opinion is different.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci recalls the violent crackdown by Serbian forces against Kosovar Albanians in the months before the NATO strikes began -- and after then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to sign an internationally brokered peace deal at Rambouillet, France, that had been signed by leaders of Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian independence movement.

 From Our Bureaus: A Serbian-language video on the legacy of the Kosovo conflict. Play
"[NATO's intervention] was a necessary decision of the international community after we signed the Rambouillet agreement. Kosovo was in flames, and Serbia's deportations of civilians were under way. So our fight was a just one, and it won the support of the international community," Thaci says. "It was a justified intervention done at the right time, so that Kosovo could win its freedom. Therefore, that decision was key in creating a new reality for Kosovo as an independent state."

Mounting Violence

Kosovo was a province of Serbia when members of the majority ethnic-Albanian population there held renegade elections in 1992 and pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova was elected president of their self-declared republic.

But Kosovo's attempted secession was largely ignored by international media amid the wider Balkan wars in Bosnia and Croatia. That is, until the late 1990s, when the wars in Bosnia and Croatia were over and ethnic-Albanian fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army launched an armed rebellion.

Yugoslav police and Serbian paramilitary forces retaliated in 1998 with a series of attacks that forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes. Altogether, some 800,000 Kosovar Albanians fled or were expelled to Macedonia and Albania before Milosevic's campaign was stopped by the NATO attacks.

In an exclusive interview this month with RFE/RL, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked about the international mood ahead of the NATO campaign in Kosovo and its legitimacy:

Madeleine Albright On Kosovo part 2i
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March 23, 2009
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussing NATO's role in the 1999 war in Kosovo.


In the Czech Republic, which joined NATO just weeks before the alliance's Kosovo campaign began, Michael Zantovsky was serving as chairman of parliament's committee on foreign affairs, defense, and security. Zantovsky now says that it is important to remember the historic context of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Zantovsky notes that European diplomats had failed repeatedly to broker an end to the earlier conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic's ultranationalist rhetoric already had fanned the flames of ethnic and religious hatred in order to strengthen his hold on power in Belgrade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"All of a sudden, NATO became the only game in town that could effectively stem the tide of nationalism which threatened to engulf the countries emerging from decades of totalitarian rule -- in particular, in the Balkans," Zantovsky said recently. "And I think that we should never forget that it was NATO that stopped the fighting in the Balkans. We can argue about the way it was done. We can argue about the force that was used. But it is not arguable that it was NATO who stopped it."

Albright also looked back on the lessons of the 1999 crisis:

Madeleine Albright On Kosovoi
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March 23, 2009
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussing NATO's role in the 1999 war in Kosovo.


Beginning Or End?

Riza Greicevci, a Kosovar Albanian writer in Pristina, told Reuters that is the way most Kosovar Albanians remember NATO's campaign today -- not as the beginning of a war against Belgrade, but as the start of the end of oppression from Belgrade.

"Albanian people, old and young, are grateful to the most powerful military organization, NATO -- Western countries, America, and their allies -- that took part in punishing the evil, crime, and genocide caused by Serbia against the Albanian people," Greicevci says.

Indeed, killings and forced deportations of ethnic-Albanian civilians in Kosovo by Yugoslav police and Serbian paramilitary forces became the basis of war crimes and genocide charges against Milosevic at the UN's war crimes court in The Hague.

An elderly man reacts after his and the homes of four other families were destroyed following NATO air attacks in the Belgrade area on April 30, 1999.
Although Milosevic died in custody before a verdict was reached at The Hague, five senior Serbian officials eventually were convicted for Kosovo war crimes. They were sentenced last month to prison terms of 15 to 22 years.

The closest the panel of judges ever came to issuing a verdict on Milosevic's charges came when the court acquitted Milan Milutinovic -- the president of Serbia in 1999 and the leader of the Yugoslavian government's negotiation group at the peace talks in Rambouillet.

The judges ruled that, in practice, "it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the supreme commander, who exercised actual command authority" over Serbian troops and security police responsible for war crimes in Kosovo during the NATO campaign.

Meanwhile, in the decade since the NATO bombings, most Kosovar Serbs have fled their homes south of the Ibar River to escape revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians.

"It is a terrible feeling when you have only a couple of hours to decide what to do and where to go and how to break the so-called barricades -- what you will take from home in a plastic bag, the only things you can take," says Milivoje Mihajlovic, a journalist who is among those exiles. "It is a terrible experience that I wouldn't like anybody to have."
Video
NATO's Air War

Reuters' archival footage of the March 1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia and the aftermath of the bombings. Play

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by: David Hernández from: Salamanca, SPAIN
March 24, 2009 17:15
Ron, I guess you mean not "cessation" but "secession"...

by: Moderator
March 24, 2009 17:15
David, you're right. Thanks for spotting the typo. It has been corrected.

by: Albanian from: NYC
March 24, 2009 17:50
There is a great sense of inhumanity when reading that Serb government officials such as Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac still think that the NATO bombing was a great mistake. Although no bombing is justified, no massacres by Serbians can’t be justified either. Mr. Sutanovac forgets that bombing was the only act to save what was left after the Serbian unstoppable genocide towards Kosovo Albanians. And he certainly forgets that they were Albanians, not Serbs. Have you seen the pictures of the ethnic Albanian children executed Mr. Sutanovac? How about a whole village of Albanians executed? Expressing such strong feeling against Albanians, it is worthy searching your past Mr. Sutanovac, see if there is a link that could make you a criminal in the international court. The difference between Serbs like you Mr. Sutanovac and German fellows is that present Germany officials accept and regret the killing of the Jews in the NAZI era, but you Mr. Sutanovac, are still a NAZI.

by: Zoran from: Ireland
March 24, 2009 19:05
This is BIASED article

by: branko
March 24, 2009 20:06
nato or west crime over yugoslavien people and state full of cia lies to get startegic destroy of like hitlers plan of etnics cleansing(genocid) of slovenian race (from balcans) on thear approach to worm see is a constant catolic and anglish politics from the time of Petar the Great befole 400 years or destroyng the Constantinopol (killing 800 000 greecs of 1,200.000 ) before 800 years and so turcs came very easy in Europe .<br />West - Latin is very old and very known <br />destroyes of anythig good from old (antic)Balcan root of Europe civilisation.

by: Blazo from: Canada
March 24, 2009 20:48
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7960116.stm<br /><br />A decade on from the Nato bombing campaign, more than 90,000 Serbs are still in danger from unexploded cluster munitions, according to a recent report funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry. <br /><br />The report says they face a daily threat and estimates that there are some 2,500 unexploded devices in 15 areas of Serbia. <br /><br />The survey was presented earlier this month by the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition. <br /><br />

by: Jordan
March 24, 2009 22:50
It's quite impressive that a website called Radio Free Europe has an exclusive interview with someone like Madeleine Albright. Perhaps you can add a section on Israeli national security, call it 'Star of David' and have in it an exclusive interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

by: Jordan from: Australia
March 25, 2009 03:04
Ten years on and an important reminder that while &quot;international law&quot; is a nice idea, there can be no denying the creed that &quot;All nations are equal, but some are more equal than others&quot;.<br /><br />That the member nations of the NATO alliance maintain that the Action against the then Yugoslavia was &quot;illegal but justified&quot; speaks volumes about the ethical validity (not to mention logical consistency) of their collective attitude towards democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

by: RON from: EUROPE
March 25, 2009 13:28
<br /><br />Serbian Officers Boast of their Vile Deeds<br /><br />The Albanische Korrespondenz reports from Durr&#235;s (Durazzo): The carnage perpetrated by the Serbs in Albania is outrageous. Serbian officers boast openly of their deeds. Serbian troops have acted infamously in Kosovo in particular. A Serbian officer reported here: &quot;The womenfolk often hid their jewellery and were not willing to hand it over. In such cases, we shot one member of the family and, right away, were given all the valuables.&quot; Particularly shocking was the behaviour of the Serbs on Luma territory. The men were burnt alive. Old people, women and children were slaughtered. In Kruja, the birthplace of Scanderbeg, a good number of men and women were simply shot to death and many houses set on fire. The Serbian commander, Captain Petrovic, published an ukaz officially announcing the evil deeds. In Tirana, several Albanians were sentenced to corporal punishment. The Serbs thrashed the wretched individuals until they died. In Kavaja and Elbasan, people were also officially beaten to death by the soldiers. A well-known, respected and wealthy gentleman, son of a Turkish officer, was shot in Durr&#235;s (Durazzo). The Serbian command later made his sentence known by wall posters on which they wrote that he had been accused of theft and sentenced to death. The Serbs have destroyed Catholic churches, saying that they are Austrian constructions and must disappear from the face of the earth. Serbian soldiers and officers harass the population day and night.<br /><br />A Serbian soldier was recently found murdered. The Serbian commander ordered the immediate arrest of five Albanians who had nothing to do with the murder and had them shot. <br /><br /> <br /><br />A Bloodbath in Shkod&#235;r (Scutari)<br /><br />The Albanische Korrespondenz reports from Podgorica: After the battle of Brdica, which resulted in a sound defeat for the Serbs, Serbian forces entered the village of Barbullush on their retreat. The terrified inhabitants came out of their homes with crucifixes in their hands and begged for mercy, but to no avail. The crazed troops attacked the unarmed villagers and slaughtered men, women, old people and children. The maimed body of an eight-year-old child was found to contain no less than six bayonet wounds.<br /><br /> <br /><br />The Serbian Denials<br /><br />In recent times, the Serbian government has countered most reports of atrocities with official denials. Such disavowals have always been issued promptly, but all too often they lacked any semblance of credibility. Such grave and detailed accusations cannot be repudiated by a simple statement that the events in question did not occur.<br /><br />The present and by no means complete selection of reports from various sources, not only Austrian, but also Italian, German, Danish, French and Russian, should have more weight in any court of human justice than all the formal denials issued by the Royal Serbian Press Office. <br /><br />In an official denial dated 8 February, the Serbian Press Office declared that, &quot;Such atrocities alleged to have been perpetrated by the Serbian army are simply unthinkable today on the part of a people who are exceptionally religious and tolerant.&quot; We can only answer: An army whose officers assault their king and queen in the middle of the night, murder them, maim their corpses with fifty-eight sabre cuts and then throw them out the window is quite capable of such atrocities, in particular since the leader of the bloodbath which took place in the konak of Belgrade was none other than Colonel Popovic, one of the leaders of the Serbian attack on Albania and currently commander of Serbian occupation forces in Durr&#235;s (Durazzo).<br /><br /> <br /><br />Vienna 1913<br /><br />

by: Alexandre Kappaun from: Brazil
March 25, 2009 14:31
When I was studying at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary, I had a Serbian colleague of mine who used to say that although he had suffered from the bombings by NATO, the Serbians deserved it, because of what they were doing with the Albanians in Kosovo. Although I do not think that anyone, specially civilians, deserves to be bombed, I do think that the Serbian people and authorities should first look at their actions and deeds before blaming anyone else for their fate, like my Serbian friend did.
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