Kosovo: The Long Road to War

A Chronology 1998


January-February – The KLA increases its road blocks and harassment of Serbian drivers and stages a series of attacks on police stations, patrols, and residences. Attacks are also directed against Serbian villagers, and against a Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs helicopter. Meanwhile, Serbia is increasing its forces in the Province in preparation for a major strike against the KLA. The forces include 15,000 regular Yugoslav Army (VJ) troops and an assortment of 15,000 personnel from multiple sources, including Special Anti-Terror Units (SAJ), Special Police Units (PJM), and Special Purpose Police Units (Red Berets, or JPNP). Mobile components of the Serbian force include 140 tanks and 150 armoured vehicles. The KLA, for their part, number approximately 350-1500 fighters in January.

23 February - Special US Envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard gives what many have since interpreted as a green light to Belgrade to go after the rebel bands by announcing in Pristina that the KLA "is without any question a terrorist group" and that the US "condemns very strongly terrorist activities in Kosovo."

28 February - 7 March 1998 – On 28 February, Serbian special forces units with helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers engage KLA fighters near the Drenica village of Likosan, ostensibly in response to the killing a few days earlier of four Serbian police officers in KLA ambushes. On 4-7 March, to destroy the leading KLA Jashari clan, the Serbian forces turn their headquarters, the towns of Prekaz and Lausa, into smoldering ruins with 20 mm antiaircraft cannons. Extended families and clans are purposely and systematically rooted out and executed following the artillery barrage, resulting ultimately in about 80 additional deaths, including 25 women and children. This would become known as the "Drenica massacre" and would ignite a full uprising, with thousands of young disaffected Kosovar Albanians enlisting in the KLA.

As a response to the Drenica massacre, US officials rule out unilateral military strikes, the very response former-President Bush had promised in his 1992 Christmas Threat. If anything would be done, it would be in concert with the NATO allies, who along with America have troops on the ground as part of the international peace implementation force in Bosnia.31

9 March – The six-power Contact Group meets to forge a consensus on the proper reaction to Milosevic’s offensive. The US and UK recommend swift and harsh reaction; France, Italy and Russia refuse to consider a military reaction; and Germany acts a "mediator" between the groups. Italy especially is loath to undertake actions that would hurt Italian companies with extensive trade and production contracts in the FRY. In the end, the meeting results in a "comprehensive arms embargo against the FRY, including Kosovo, a refusal to supply equipment to the FRY which might be used for internal repression or for terrorism, the denial of visas for senior FRY and Serbian representatives responsible for repressive action by FRY security forces in Kosovo, and a moratorium on government-financed credit support for trade and investment, including government financing for privatisation, in Serbia." Russia refuses to associate itself with the denial of visas or moratorium on credit support. By offering some concessions, Milosevic succeeds in getting the Contact Group to agree to a 10 day (rather than 5 day) period in which he "was to take specific steps to stop the violence as well as engage in a commitment to find a political solution through dialogue."

23 March – The 3+3 mediation group finally reaches an agreement on measures to implement the 1 September 1996 Education Agreement brokered by Communita di Sant’Egidio. The agreement is immediately followed by fierce protests by Serb nationalists in Belgrade.32 Later in April-May, attempts to implement some of the measures (such as turning over of school buildings in the afternoon to Kosovar Albanian direction) lead to petty violence and vandalism by Serbs, and the effort is dropped by June 1998 due to the escalating civil war.

24 March – A new Serbian revenge attack on three villages near the town of Decani on the border with Albania results in the death of over 40 Kosovar Albanians.

25 March – The Contact Group meets again in Bonn. The 10-day deadline for Serbian compliance, which has now expired, is extended another four weeks.

Mid-April – Clashes take place between Yugoslav border guards and KLA fighters crossing into Kosovo from Albania.

23-24 April – Roughly 200 KLA guerrillas and Yugoslav troops clash, leading to 23 more Albanian deaths. In following days, VJ army units would be brought in to shell the villages with artillery and tanks. In another region to the south of Decani, KLA fighters attack police posts.

29 April – The Contact Group establishes that the "crucial requirements" of its earlier statements had not been met by Serbia. A freeze is instituted for Serbian funds held abroad, but the Group states that it will "immediately reverse this decision" if the KLA and Serbia set up a "framework for dialogue" and adopt a "stabilization package" by 9 May. The Group threatens to stop new investment in Serbia by that date if the recommended actions are not taken.

Early May onwards – The KLA expands its attacks against police posts into central Kosovo, in attempts to interrupt the region's main traffic artery from Pristina to Pec.

Early May – In US Administration meetings, Ambassador Gelbard argues strenuously for air strikes, saying that he has identified initial bombing targets with NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger rejects the plan, as do all others at the time. Instead, the Administration relies on Ambassador Holbrooke, who pressures Ibrahim Rugova to meet with Milosevic in an attempt to capitalize on the increase in KLA strength (this exploitation of the KLA is used to convince both sides that flexibility is needed in bargaining, not just Milosevic. The West and Russia still do not support the pro-independence goals of the LDK and Rugova).33

15 May – Milosevic receives Rugova in Belgrade for a first round of what is hoped to be an institutionalization of bilateral dialogue. No real results are produced except for the further de-legitimation of Rugova, who is accused of treason by some other Albanian leaders.

23 May – Milosevic is rewarded for his meeting with Rugova by a suspension of the Western threat to ban all investment in the FRY.

24 May – Milosevic orders an offensive in the Decani region to destroy the new base of KLA operations out of Albania. Supply routes across the border are attacked by tanks and artillery using "scorched earth" tactics. 20,000 inhabitants of border villages are forced to flee.

27 May – Rugova’s cooperation with Holbrooke is rewarded by a meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office. As one NYT reporter later summarizes the meeting’s content, "Mr. Rugova warned that without direct American intervention, Kosovo was headed for all-out war. He pleaded for urgent American action and an increased American presence to halt the escalating violence." The President replied, "We will not allow another Bosnia to happen in Kosovo," but nothing concrete was promised. The meeting received little press coverage in the United States.34

Late May – Western disappointment and frustration with both Milosevic and Russian obstructionism in the Contact Group cause the UK (now holding the Presidency of the European Union) and the US to shift focus from the Contact Group and UN to Western institutions such as the EU and NATO.

May-JuneBy late spring and early summer, the KLA’s ranks have risen to at least 5,000 people, and perhaps as high as 30,000.

June-July – NATO’s military planners begin weighing their options, ranging from an attack involving only the firing of cruise missiles, to a phased air campaign, to deployment of peacekeeping troops as part of a negotiated or imposed settlement. The planners also look at what it would take to invade Yugoslavia. It is concluded that as many as 200,000 soldiers would be needed for a ground war under standard assumptions about required NATO-to-Serb force ratios and acceptable Western casualties. In addition to this problem, NATO officials worry about imposing a peace without UN Security Council approval, including China and Russia.35

5 June – The village of Junik, the KLA stronghold, is bombed by four Serbian military aircraft, killing 100 Kosovar Albanians and four Serbian policemen. Tens of thousands of civilians flee into neighboring regions, with some 20,000 more trapped between the battle lines. According to one article in the International Herald Tribune, the aim of the offensive is "to have an eight to 10 kilometre-wide stretch where no neutral people live." Landmines are planted to mark and enforce this stretch of territory.

9 June – The EU bans new investments in Serbia, with most of the burden falling on Italy and Greece.

11 June – NATO steps up its military presence in Albania and Macedonia, based on a decision of the Defence Ministers Session of the North Atlantic Council. Flights of combat aircraft are announced as a threat to Milosevic.

June – The Contact Group on the Balkans warns Milosevic that he cannot count on allied disunity as in Bosnia, and NATO is ordered to create plans for military action, after which Milosevic promises concessions. However, at the same time, the Albanian KLA uses the period May-June to take control of 40%+ of Kosovo territory.

13 June – 9000-11,000 Yugoslav troops and 7000-10,000 police and paramilitary troops enter Kosovo Province, reinforced by 175 tanks, 200 armoured personnel carriers, and 120 artillery batteries. These forces immediately attack west of Djakovica, where tens of thousands of refugees have already sought shelter and shell Djakovica itself.

15 June – 80 aircraft from 15 NATO countries embark on exercise "Determined Falcon," a five-hour show of force in Albania and Macedonia at a distance of 20 km from the border of the FRY. Milosevic counters this with an increase of troops, artillery, and anti-aircraft missiles near the border of Albania, as well as with a visit to Moscow, which is already criticizing Western tactics.

16 June – In an apparent turnabout (with Russian diplomatic pressure) Milosevic announces that diplomats and humanitarian and medical NGOs are to be given unimpeded access to Kosovo. Additionally, he promises not to hinder refugees fleeing the conflict and to order the armed forces to avoid hurting civilians. Finally, he promises to continue political talks with Rugova.

Mid-June – The KLA attempts to cut off the main Serbian supply route from Pristina to the Western border region, while Serbian forces respond by attempting to choke off the Pristina-Pec KLA supply route. After 16 June, when the threat of Western airstrikes is momentarily delayed by Milosevic’s compromises, Serbian forces initiate battles against KLA forces that are overstretched across these supply routes.

24 June – The KLA refuse a regional ceasefire agreement offered by Special Envoy Holbrooke, instead initiating an ethnic cleansing campaign against Serbian villages in central Kosovo, stepping up attacks on the primary Serbian supply route, and staging a surprise attack on the strategically important open-pit coal mine of Belacevac near Pristina. Milosevic regains diplomatic leverage vis--vis NATO, which is taken by surprise by the KLA offensives, and NATO decreases its pressure on Milosevic.

6 July – A Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM) is launched by Russia and the US. It soon reaches 200 personnel, under the supervision of Contact Group representatives in Belgrade as well as Austria (holder of the EU Presidency) and Poland (the OSCE Chairman-in-Office). Official monitoring of the conflict continues from this day forward.

Mid-July – Serbian forces are being heavily attacked by the KLA, leading to fits of action and counteraction. Serbian forces regain the region of Orahovac in fighting with the KLA that causes 25,000 inhabitants to flee, and 34 KLA guerrillas and 76 citizens are killed. Milosevic goes ahead with plans to sever KLA communications and supply lines completely while restoring Serbian lines. KLA posts along the two separate supply routes are destroyed.

28 July – As summarized by Balkan expert Dr. Stefan Troebst, "Serbian forces marched from three different directions into the town of Malisevo, where the KLA supreme command was located. The KLA did not make a serious attempt to defend the town but retreated in disarray together with several tens of thousands of inhabitants and refugees. In military as well as political terms, this was the turning point of the conflict. The myth of the KLA as a modern, omnipresent and ultimately superior force and as such the nucleus of a new nation-state of Kosovar Albanians was seriously damaged."

7 August - Alexander Vershbow, the United States representative to NATO and a former National Security Council aide who had been deeply involved in Bosnia policy during Dayton, sends a classified cable to Washington titled "Kosovo: Time for Another Endgame Strategy." It outlines a political settlement in Kosovo with the cooperation of the Russians, and with full US-Russian unity on the Security Council. According to one NYT article written half a year later, "The proposed deal called for creation of an international protectorate in Kosovo. The settlement would be policed by an international military presence, or ground force. If a peace settlement was negotiated in advance, as many as 30,000 troops might be required to enforce it. But Mr. Vershbow also left open the possibility that NATO might have to impose a settlement without Belgrade’s consent, requiring 60,000 troops." Also in the cable, Vershbow argues that "Sooner or later we are going to face the issue of deploying ground forces in Kosovo. We have too much at stake in the political stability of the south Balkans to permit the conflict to fester much longer."Although the plan generates some interest among midlevel officials in Washington, and senior officials agree that it underscores the need to come up with a comprehensive strategy, the plan is never adopted.36

1-15 August – During the first half of August, Serbian forces succeed in crushing the remaining KLA strongholds in Drenica and in the west.

13 August – Respected Kosovar Albanian leader Adem Demaci, a proponent of increased (but nonviolent) resistance in 1997, and opponent of Rugova since fall 1997, takes over the function of political representative of the KLA. He immediately declares that the KLA attempt to defend all liberated territories against counterattacks by Serbian forces was a "fatal mistake" and announces instead a return to "classic guerrilla warfare tactics."

16 August - 4 October – After the re-taking of the strategic town and KLA stronghold of Junik on 15 August, Milosevic orders the military to eliminate the last pockets of resistance in the regions around Pristina as well as the western border with Albania. At the same time, the Serbian judiciary is utilized to repress politically active Kosovar Albanians. By the time of a Serbian military stand-down on 4 October, 1242 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo had been charged with "terrorist acts."

September – The internal displacement of 200,000 Albanians, including 50,000 "forest people" in the hills, keeps the international community concerned about humanitarian issues in Kosovo Province, even as organized KLA activity temporarily abates.

23 September – With Russian support, but with China abstaining, the UN Security Council passes Resolution 1199. This Resolution would constitute the primary foundation for an upcoming Serbian agreement with US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke in October. The Resolution requires the FRY to implement a ceasefire, withdraw forces deployed in Kosovo during the war and return those already in the Province to their garrisons, allow unfettered access for humanitarian workers, and offer full cooperation with the UN tribunal to investigate war crimes.

23 September – NATO finally agrees on a strategy at a meeting in Vilamoura, Portugal. At the private meeting, William S. Cohen challenges his colleagues to embrace a new role for the alliance. However, his commitment is only to air power, not ground troops.37

24 September – Based on the decision at Vilamoura, Portugal, on the previous day, NATO issues an Activation Warning for both a limited air option and a phased air campaign.38

25 September – 16 ethnic Albanian civilians are killed at Fornje Obrinje in the Drenica region. This human rights violation serves as a "last straw" for the international community, leading to increased Western pressure for an agreement on a political process for Kosovo’s status, as well as concrete moves towards Kosovar autonomy. Also, there is pressure for an immediate cease-fire owing to fears of an impending humanitarian catastrophe with the onset of winter.

8 October –US Special Envoy Holbrooke travels to Belgrade "with the full authority of the Contact Group" to demand complieance with UN Resolution 1199. His mission is paralleled by a renewed threat by NATO and by Russian approval of a planned OSCE verification force on the ground. The combination of Russian and NATO pressure convinces Milosevic to accept mediation.

12 October – At the peak of a visible and unprecedented build-up of NATO forces for potential airstrikes, Milosevic agrees to a cease-fire, to an OSCE presence of 2000 unarmed verifiers in Kosovo, and NATO aerial reconnaissance. The Serbian leader agrees to withdraw some of his forces from Kosovo, and promises to exchange a token number of Yugoslav and NATO military officers between the NATO air base at Vicenza, Italy, and Serbia’s Defense Ministry in Belgrade. Perhaps most significantly, he also promises to produce plans for a political solution of the conflict, including an increased degree of internal self-determination for Kosovo [see 13 October entry below]. However, Kosovo would still remain under Serbian (FRY) sovereignty, and to defend against KLA "terrorist attacks," Serbia would be allowed to keep 15,000 VJ troops and 10,000 Ministry of Interior Affairs (MUP) forces in the Province.

To seal the deal, Milosevic wants the lifting of the NATO Activation Warning that gives authority to launch strikes immediately.39 Holbrooke makes no promises and heads to Brussels on the evening of 12 October to meet with NATO representatives.

13 October – NATO headquarters agree to suspend, but not remove, the Activation Warning, reducing it to an Activation Order. Under the newly-amended Activation Order (at Holbrooke’s request), the North Atlantic Council extends the deadline for Milosevic’s execution of the agreements to 96 rather than 48 hours, bringing it into agreement with the cease-fire timeline requested by Milosevic during the talks in Belgrade. Despite this concession, Milosevic is furious with Holbrooke about the refusal to remove the Activation Order for strikes, considering it a declaration of war.

In Washington, DC, President Clinton declares that Milosevic "agreed to internationally supervised democratic elections in Kosovo, substantial self-government and a local police–in short, rights the Kosovars have been demanding since Mr. Milosevic stripped their autonomy a decade ago."40

13 October – The Serbian government newspaper Tanjug prints, in full, the unilateral Serbian version of the Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement on Kosovo’s future status. The document is an outline for a committed political process, specifying a succinct and precise timetable, including referenda and moves towards Kosovar Albanian autonomy.41

15 October – General Wesley Clark and VJ Chief of Staff General Momcilo Perisic sign an agreement establishing a NATO Air Verification Mission over Kosovo, titled "Operation Eagle Eye." The agreement provides for a "Mutual Safety Zone" extending 25 km around the borders of Kosovo Province. In response to Milosevic’s partial implementation of the October agreements, NATO extends its previous 96-hour Activation Order deadline by another 10 days on 16 October.

16 October – OSCE Chairman-in-Office Bronislaw Geremek of Poland signs an agreement in Belgrade on an OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM). The Mission is meant to "verify compliance of all parties in Kosovo with UN Security Council Resolution 1199," including regular reports to the OSCE Permanent Council, the UN Security Council, the Ministries of State in Europe, the US State Department, and appropriate EU bodies. The KVM would have "full freedom of movement," with headquarters in Pristina.

24 October – The UN Security Council endorses the KVM through Resolution 1203, demanding that the FRY abide by its agreements concerning the OSCE presence in Kosovo and reminding the FRY of its "primary responsibility for the safety and security of all diplomatic personnel."

Late October – The Serbs begin infiltrating reinforcements and equipment in violation of the October verbal agreements. Serbian officers bluntly tell General Clark in October that they are just two weeks away from eliminating the Kosovo Liberation Army.42

October - November – Despite NATO’s continued assurances to Serbia that it does not want to become the KLA’s "air force," the rebels quickly reclaim territory abandoned by the required withdrawal of Serbian forces and mount a continuous series of small-scale attacks.43

November – A highly classified US National Intelligence Estimate concludes that Milosevic would only accept a more autonomous status for Kosovo "if he thinks he is in danger because the West is threatening to use sustained and decisive military power against his forces."44

November – NATO intelligence detects signs of a Serbian military buildup around Kosovo. Western intelligence officials, particularly the Germans, believe that these troops could form the backbone of a military operation to push hundreds of thousands of Albanians out of Kosovo.45

26 November – To coordinate the operations of the KVM with NATO Air Verification Mission, NATO inaugurates a Coordination Center in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo on the FRY-Macedonian border.

November-December The KLA take advantage of the cease-fire by buying weapons, improving their training, and becoming a more formidable force.46

2-5 December – The Macedonian Government approves the stationing in Kumanovo of a French-led NATO Extraction Force of 1700 personnel from several NATO countries, dubbed "Operation Joint Guarantor" (XFOR). The Activation Order for XFOR is issued on 5 December. Its mandate is to extract members of the KVM or other designated persons from Kosovo in an emergency.

December – High US Administration officials are abandoning the long-held policy of relying on Milosevic as a "deal maker" for stability in the Balkans. The US is searching for a new "endgame strategy" that includes the purposeful undermining of President Milosevic’s Regime. In Brussels on 8 December, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls on the NATO alliance to find "an appropriate way to support the democratic aspirations of the Serb people," who "have been silenced and shackled far too long." Her spokesman, James Rubin, also gives the statement "Milosevic has been at the center of every crisis in the former Yugoslavia over the last decade. He is not simply part of the problem–Milosevic is the problem." According to one participant in ongoing policy discussions, "There is a generalized feeling now throughout the Administration that Milosevic is the problem in the Balkans, and less vital for the solutions."47

The Brussels meeting is soon followed on 10 December by a hearing in Washington, DC, by the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Through the CSCE, the US Congress invites independent media figures and Serbian opposition leaders to testify against Milosevic. Participants argue that there can be no stability either within the FRY or within the larger region until Serbia democratizes under a regime with a different definition of Serbian nationalism. They argue that the US does not lend enough political or financial aid to opposition media and political groups, and also that the US has provided lackluster support for initiatives for dialogue between the LDK and Serbian democratic opposition in the FRY.48

As part of evolving US strategy, officials from the highest levels of the State Department meet with the Serbian opposition after their testimony before the CSCE. According to the New York Times, "The Administration hopes to roll out an explicit program at the beginning of the year . . . which will include aid to independent news organizations, academic institutions and civic organizations, many of which Milosevic has been trying to repress in Serbia. Washington will also direct further support to Montenegro, whose President, Milo Djukanovic, has been diverging from Belgrade . . . and providing safe haven for a number of the news organizations and academic institutions shut down [by Milosevic]."49

13 October - 14 December – During the first two months of the cease-fire, 170 instances of armed violence involving the KLA and/or Serbian forces have resulted in the deaths of about 200 people.

14 December – A clash between Yugoslav border guards and KLA fighters crossing the border from Albania (near Prizren) results in the death of 37 Kosovar Albanians. Six Serbs are assassinated by the KLA in the town of Pec in revenge attacks. A new period of low-level warfare begins despite the presence of the KVM.

Kosovo Chronology, 1999

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