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1999 In Review: The Tide Turns

Nineteen ninety nine was the year the growing crisis in the Serbian province of Kosovo finally exploded in violence, destruction and a mass movement of populations. In this third of four features on the year in Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back at the final month of NATO airstrikes when the tide in the war of words, weapons and shifting populations turned against Belgrade.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO airstrikes hit a low point on May 7 when NATO missiles struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in what the alliance called an "accident."

The Chinese Embassy had been on the site for three years but NATO's outdated intelligence data incorrectly indicated that the site was a legitimate Yugoslav target. NATO was quick to express its regret as was the most outspoken defense minister of the alliance, Britain's George Robertson.

"The Chinese Embassy was not deliberately targeted. NATO has made it clear, I made it clear, that it was not deliberately targeted. It was an error. It was a mistake, a tragedy that happened, but it certainly was not a target and could not conceivably have been a target."

During May, the skies cleared over Yugoslavia and NATO airstrikes steadily intensified. Then, on May 27, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his cohorts received a blow from an unexpected direction. The chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Louise Arbour, announced she had indicted Milosevic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic and three other senior Belgrade leaders for war crimes committed since the beginning of 1999 in Kosovo.

Meanwhile, although Serb forces torched many Albanian homes and businesses, in relatively few cases did they resort to blowing up homes -- a contrast to their activities in Croatia and Bosnia. It was a blessing in disguise as many homes and businesses gutted by future could be renovated. Whether the reason for not blowing up homes was a shortage of explosives or a lack of time remains unclear.

The air war destroyed numerous factories, bridges and stationary military targets in Kosovo and Serbia. Initially, the airstrikes appeared to unite Serbs against the West. But that unity wore thin and opposition to the Milosevic regime eventually grew, eventually sparking demonstrations by reservists and their family members.

But it was a massive NATO strike on a concentration of Serb troops and artillery whom the UCK had drawn out of their forest hiding places on Mount Planeja near the Albanian border in late May that finally forced Milosevic to capitulate to NATO's demands. NATO estimated the number of Serb military casualties in that strike in the hundreds and initially Belgrade concurred. UCK scouts later reported that the Serbs loaded nearly all their damaged and destroyed artillery on flatbed trucks and took them out of the province, further hampering NATO estimates of Yugoslav losses.

Despite intense mediation by Russian officials, Milosevic prevaricated for a week. During that time, NATO estimated Milosevic's forces lost a further 29 tanks, 93 armored personnel carriers, and considerable quantities of artillery and numerous personnel.

Finally on June 10, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana was able to announce an end to hostilities.

"I can announce that today, Milosevic has complied with the five conditions the international community had placed, and therefore a few minutes ago, I instructed General Clark to suspend NATO's air operations against Yugoslavia. I have taken this decision following a consultation with the North Atlantic Council, and also after confirmation from General Clark that the full withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces from Kosovo has begun."

Once the airstrikes ended, the UN Security Council enacted Resolution 1244 authorizing the NATO-led security presence in Kosovo, KFOR and the UN administration for the province, UNMIK.

As the Serbs launched a phased withdrawal according to a timetable agreed on with NATO, Russian troops and NATO forces entered the province. The Russians raced from Bosnia via Belgrade to get to Pristina first. There they were cheered by local Serbs. But the joy was short-lived. The Russians, limited in number, proceeded to occupy Pristina airport but abandoned the city to the British who started their occupation from Macedonia, considerably slowed down by the need to clear mines and disarm booby-traps along the road from the border.

In Belgrade, Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, who had insisted throughout the war that the bombing had to stop, expressed relief.

"The devastated country and so many thousands of victims don't allow us to be joyous. The question arises why all this has happened and I think the need is for all of us to understand that this has to be the beginning of a new Serbia, a democratic, civilized Serbia."

But Western hopes that Milosevic's capitulation would result in his downfall proved premature at best. In the spirit of his speech at Kosovo Polje a decade earlier, once again Milosevic said black was white -- that a Serb defeat was a Serb victory. In his words, "we never gave up Kosovo". He claimed total Serb losses amounted to 462 soldiers and 114 police.

"We will not give up Kosovo. We never gave up Kosovo.... Open questions regarding the possible independence of Kosovo in the time before the aggression have been sealed with the Belgrade agreement. The territorial integrity of our country can never be questioned again."

NATO dismissed Milosevic's low fatality claims as false, noting that the Belgrade regime had falsely claimed to have shot down dozens of NATO warplanes.

NATO-led troops began entering Kosovo on June 12. But three days later and well before the last Serb troops had left, a UN refugee (UNHCR) spokesman, Dennis MacNamara, expressed exasperation that the mass return of Kosovar Albanian refugees had begun despite the presence of land mines.

"As we feared, the first group of refugees decided to go it alone and we have 1,500 to 2,000, we think, who went across the Blace crossing just before the middle of the day on their own."

MacNamara noted that day two returnees entering Kosovo at another border crossing from Macedonia set off a mine and were killed.

The Serb withdrawal took 11 days. Just hours after the last Serb soldier left Kosovo, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, secured a signed pledge from the UCK to demilitarize over a 90-day period. The UCK was eventually dissolved and many of its rank and file members and commanders joined the Kosovo Protection Force, a nascent police force. But although UCK handed over plenty of arms, large quantities of weapons are still believed to be hidden.

Now it was time for the Kosovar Albanians who had survived the war in the province to cheer. The majority of Serb civilians packed their bags and fled, many carting away the stolen property of their Albanian neighbors.

What made the Kosovo refugees different from their predecessors elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia was that they returned home en masse just days after the war ended. Once again, the international community was taken by surprise, having apparently ignored the refugees' pledges to return the moment it became possible.

For those who had endured a decade of Serb-dictated martial law, constant harassment and finally war, murder and expulsion, the 78-days of NATO air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia yielded a miracle -- freedom.