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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Conflict Reaches New Stage

Prague, 22 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign media frequently portrayed then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's wars in Croatia between 1991 and 1995 and in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 as the "inevitable result of ancient ethnic hatreds" and as a continuation of World War II.

Experts on Balkan affairs subsequently debunked both of these ideas, showing that Serbs, Croats and Muslims have lived together in relative harmony throughout the centuries and frequently intermarried. The experts also noted that the battle lines in World War II were not neatly drawn and that members of all three ethnic groups fought on all sides at various times and places in the course of the conflict.

Kosova, however, is a different matter, although the foreign media rarely report on its long history of inter-ethnic conflict. While the three Slavic peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina are of the same ethnic stock and share a common language, the Serbs and ethnic Albanians of Kosova are of different origins and literally -- as well as figuratively -- do not speak the same language. The two communities have historically tended to live distinctly apart rather than intermixed, as is often the case in Bosnia.

Atrocities and counter-atrocities were committed by Serbs and Albanians alike during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, World War I and World War II. Even in peacetime, tension was high between the two groups during the short life of the Yugoslav kingdom from 1918 to 1941, when the Serbs sought to tighten control over the Albanian population. In Marshal Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, the Serbs held primacy in Kosova until 1966; after that, the Albanians enjoyed a wide measure of home rule until Milosevic ended it in 1990.

The legacy of mutual atrocities has reemerged in the course of the current conflict. In June, Western dailies reported that the UCK (Kosova Liberation Army) had ended its policy of attacking only Serbian officials and Kosovars whom it regarded as collaborators, and began targeting villages of innocent Serbian civilians as well. The Serbs of Kosova are a frightened minority, many of whom fear that Milosevic has already sold them out, much as he did the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia in 1995. By attacking Serbian peasant villages, the UCK lost its claim to be a purely defensive organization.

In recent weeks, the "New York Times" and some other Western dailies have written that the Serbian forces in Kosova have introduced a policy of reprisal killings and abductions in response to UCK violence against Serbian paramilitary police. This comes in addition to introducing the ethnic-cleansing techniques that Milosevic's forces developed in Croatia and Bosnia.

Three additional developments also give ground for concern that the Kosovar conflict has possibly entered a new stage that could herald the spread of the war to Macedonia and Albania.

First, the UCK has shown new self-confidence by launching an attack on the Serbian-held but mainly ethnic Albanian town of Rahovec (Orahovac in Serbo-Croatian) during the last weekend. This marks the first time that the UCK has departed from hit-and-run guerrilla tactics in mainly rural areas and has taken on the more heavily-armed Serbs in a conventional battle for a town. A UCK spokesman said bluntly that Rahovec was the "beginning of a war that will end in Prishtina."

Second, yesterday three powerful explosions took place in three different places in Macedonia. The blasts shook the capital Skopje as well as Kumanovo and Tabanovce near the Yugoslav border. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but journalists quickly suggested that the bombs were the work of the UCK. Although UCK spokesmen have denied that they want to extend the conflict to Macedonia, many observers have long feared that militant UCK supporters among Macedonia's Albanian minority could turn to violence. Relations are tense between the Macedonians and the local Albanians, who make up some 25 percent of the population and who live primarily in western Macedonia. Third, the war of words between Belgrade and Tirana has heated up since early July. The Serbian authorities continue to say that the Albanian authorities allow the UCK to train and arm "terrorists" on Albanian territory, but have recently added the accusation that as many as 300 uniformed Albanian soldiers have entered Kosova to fight on the side of the UCK.

Tirana denied the charge, just as Belgrade rebuffed a claim made by Albania and confirmed by representatives of the OSCE that Serbian forces shelled Albanian territory on July 18. But Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano went one step farther on July 21, when he openly called for foreign air strikes on Serbia in order to halt "Milosevic's war machine."

Albania has not recovered from the anarchy that erupted in the spring of 1997 and its army is in no state of readiness to defend its borders against the more numerous and better equipped and trained Serbs. Nano's blunt public statement may reflect a real fear that his country may soon face an attack that it will be unable to fight off alone.