Prague, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Accounts from the thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo indicate that Yugoslavia's Third Army Corps and Interior Ministry police are conducting a calculated strategy of ethnic cleansing to re-engineer the province's ethnic composition.
The accounts from refugees fleeing to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro since the weekend are strikingly similar. They say their villages and towns are first surrounded by Yugoslav army tanks and artillery. Masked Serbian soldiers, police and paramilitary units then go from home to home threatening residents at gunpoint to either leave immediately or be killed. The refugees also say many men of fighting age -- between 15 and 60 -- are being separated from women and children and taken away.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook backed those stories on Monday when he said more than 20,000 Kosovars had been "herded" into what he called "concentration areas" within the province. Cook --recalling mass killings by Belgrade-backed troops at Vukovar in Croatia in 1992 and at Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 -- said he fears mass executions also are taking place in Kosovo.
RFE/RL received reports this week that forced evictions were underway in the provincial capital, Pristina. Yugoslav army tanks reportedly surrounded the ethnic Albanian district of Dragodan near the center of the city. Consistent with operations reported elsewhere in the province, residents were being evicted by masked gunmen and their homes set ablaze.
Hashim Thaci, the political leader of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), said yesterday that 100,000 Kosovars have now been herded into Pristina's main soccer stadium and two other locations in Kosovo. The claim has not been confirmed independently, but international human rights groups also say ethnic Albanians are being detained at three sites in Kosovo, including the stadium in Pristina.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin says it appears that genocide is underway as part of a state policy ordered by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic himself.
"We have very clear indicators that genocide is unfolding in Kosovo. We are looking at a mixture of confirmed and unconfirmed reports at this time. But we don't see any need to await confirmation of genocide. Clearly there are crimes against humanity occurring in Kosovo, and our response to this criminal activity by Milosevic's forces is taking place right now."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has dismissed the State Department's allegations of Serbian-led genocide, saying that they are just rumors being spread to justify NATO air strikes. But the allegations aren't coming only from western officials. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic this week also accused Milosevic of forcing thousands of refugees abroad in an attempt to destabilize neighboring governments.
"We demand that the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia stop the politics which lead to the killing of innocent people and threaten the state."
Although Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic acknowledged yesterday that atrocities may be occurring in Kosovo, he denied that ethnic cleansing is part of any state strategy.
But the strongest evidence of a systematic campaign is the similarity of accounts told by so many refugees who have fled to separate countries from different parts of Kosovo. Analysts familiar with the command structure of the Yugoslav army say it would be impossible for local Serb military commanders to independently order such coordinated operations across the province.
Meanwhile, Yugoslavia's highly paid interior ministry police are Milosevic's most loyal force. They are directed by Interior Minister Koran Sokolovic.
The scale and similarity of the forced evictions suggest that the operations are a coordinated effort by the Interior Ministry and the military forces active in Kosovo -- the Third Army Corps. General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who heads the Third Army Corps, takes his orders from Dragoljub Ojdanic, the Chief of the General Staff. And Ojdanic answers directly to Milosevic, who heads Yugoslavia's Supreme Defense Council.
Pavkovic, a supporter of Milosevic's regime, has been active in Kosovo as an officer since 1994. He became the commander in charge of armed forces in Pristina in 1996 and was promoted by Milosevic to head the Third Army just three months ago. The buildup of Yugoslav forces in Kosovo in the weeks before NATO air strikes started -- from just 3,000 deployed troops to more than 40,000 -- was achieved under Pavkovic's direct supervision.
General Pavkovic himself has said that his tactics are based on Belgrade's political agenda. Just four days before NATO air strikes began, Belgrade's independent news magazine "Vreme" quoted Pavkovic as saying that the Third Army would, quoting, "help the state provide the conditions for a political solution" to the Kosovo crisis.
Those remarks appear ominous in light of the latest western analysis that Belgrade appears to be carving out an ethnically cleansed region with the aim of presenting a partitioned Kosovo as a political solution.
U.S. President Bill Clinton says that what is happening within Kosovo has only strengthened NATO's resolve to continue air strikes against Yugoslav forces.
"The allies are united in their outrage over President Milosevic's atrocities against innocent people. We are determined to stay with our policy. As [French] President [Jacques] Chirac said (March 30), what is happening today must strengthen our resolution."
The Clinton administration has urged the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague to focus investigations in Kosovo on the systematic destruction of villages so that it is not just low-ranking soldiers who are prosecuted for war crimes, but military and political leaders all the way up to Milosevic.
Meanwhile, Britain, France, Germany and the United States have all said they will not allow Belgrade to succeed with a strategy of ethnic cleansing. They say the safe return of refugees to their towns and villages has been added to the conditions Belgrade must meet to bring an end to NATO air strikes. Other conditions include an end to the Serb offensive in Kosovo, the withdrawal of most army and interior ministry troops from the province, and serious steps toward signing the Contact Group's three-year autonomy accord.