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Yugoslavia: U.S. Ambassadors Pledge That Kosovars Will Go Home

Skopje, 15 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia now in their fourth week, two of the top U.S. diplomats engaged in the crisis sat with RFE/RL's Kitty McKinsey to talk about the future of Kosovo. In separate interviews, Christopher Hill -- the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia -- and William Walker -- head of the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission -- talked about the ultimate defeat of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the return of Kosovar refugees to their homes, and the prosecution of Serbs for war crimes.

During an interview this week in the Macedonia capital, Skopje, the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Hill, expressed confidence that Milosevic's military will be defeated and that NATO will send an international military force into the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. He said the force will take home the vast numbers of ethnic Albanians who have been expelled to Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

And both Hill and the OSCE's Willliam Walker rejected suggestions that NATO air strikes are in any way to blame for what they say is the Serb's decision to expel much of the population of Kosovo from their homes and even from the country. Hill said the Serbs have no excuse for their actions:

"First of all, we know that well prior to any conceivable NATO air [strikes] there were Yugoslav plans to begin a policy of forced expulsions. And by the way, a lot of what the Serbs have done here are absolute crimes. And even in their own world, for them to say that NATO air strikes caused them to commit crimes against civilians is, I think, a real stretch of the imagination. So I think this is something the Serbs will have to be judged on alone. And I don't think they have any mitigating circumstances such as NATO air strikes."

Walker -- also in an interview this week in Skopje -- said he expected that when his 1,380 OSCE verifiers pulled out of Kosovo -- just four days ahead of NATO air strikes -- that Serbian police and military forces would attack the Kosovo Liberation Army. But he said he did not expect reprisals against the civilian population or mass expulsions of innocent people. In his words, "Not in my wildest imaginations did I think [things] would get as bad as they got and continue to be." On the other hand, he said that in his four months in Kosovo, he observed many similar atrocities by Serbian forces:

"Many of the things that have been happening had their antecedents well before we pulled out. We saw them shelling villages with artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. We saw them then going into villages and brutalizing the population, looting, burning the homes, pushing the people out onto the road. We didn't see it on the scale that's been underway for the last few weeks. So when we were coming out, the very day we were coming out, we started hearing that just behind us were coming tanks and armored personnel carriers and that was our first inkling that they were moving very, very fast and were going to move in with heavy equipment to do more of this. But even then we did not imagine it was going to be this sort of massive brutality that's occurred."

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook this week called Serbian actions in Kosovo "fascism and genocide."

Ambassador Hill says that -- as a diplomat -- he is more comfortable with understatement. But, he adds, "It's very difficult to be understated when one looks at the dimensions of this calamity in Kosovo and what the Serbs have done."

He says Serb atrocities in Kosovo are, in his words, "reminiscent of previous eras," like forced population movements in the aftermath of World War One and during World War Two. Hill adds that "its hard to believe that the Serbs understand that they're in 1999, given what they have been doing."

The U.N. war crime's tribunal in The Hague is already collecting evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide committed by the Serbs in Kosovo. And Walker warns sternly that the international community will not let Serb crimes go unpunished.

Both ambassadors express confidence that, as Hill put it, "all wars come to an end" and that there will be a political settlement that will include the withdrawal of Serbian army and police from Kosovo. An international military force would then move in to protect the Kosovar refugees as they begin to rebuild their destroyed houses with international assistance.

Hill was architect of the Rambouillet peace agreement that was accepted by representatives of Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians but rejected by the Serb side. He says the Rambouillet deal is not totally dead. He said elements of it will likely be included in any future peace settlement, but said it is in Milosevic's interests to settle as soon as possible.

Walker said even more bluntly that Milosevic has lost the chance for a peace settlement favorable to his side:

"The agreement that was on the table when they met at Rambouillet we all thought in the international community was a very good one for both sides. It looked particularly good for Belgrade. There was no question of territorial integrity; there was permission to keep certain numbers of troops there, police and Yugoslav army. There was no talk of independence. I think everybody expected them to sign. They didn't. They have now inflicted this sort of horror on Kosovo and even on themselves. I think we will now go to another step of that negotiation process, and I think the next agreement is not going to be as favorable to Belgrade as the one that was on the table at Rambouillet."

Walker remains in Skopje with a scaled-down staff of 350 OSCE verifiers, working on plans to go back to Kosovo to establish peace. Working with the planned military force, the OSCE will attempt such civilian tasks as taking a census, organizing elections, and establishing a local police force that will reflect the fact that some 90 percent of Kosovo's population is ethnic Albanian.

And most important, both Hill and Walker say, will be the return of the expelled Kosovars to their homes. This is a message Walker says he repeats whenever he talks with Kosovar refugees in Macedonia.