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Kosovo: the road to war

Labour & Trade Union Review, October 2000

On 12th March this year, the BBC broadcast a programme entitled "Moral Combat: NATO at War" which examined, amongst other things, what happened in the period October 1998 to March 1999, including the Racak incident. The journalist responsible for it was Alan Little. Little was a BBC correspondent in the Balkans during the break-up of Yugoslavia. At that time he was far from sympathetic to the Serbs.

The following is a transcript of the part of the programme which dealt with the situation on the ground in Kosovo after the Holbrooke agreement in October 1998, in which Milosevic agreed to a ceasefire in Kosovo and to reduce his forces there to pre-war levels. Specifically, it examines the incident at Racak, which was the trigger for the Rambouillet conference and hence the war. Alan Little (indicated by AL below) spoke the commentary and asked the questions.

AL: The [KVM's] job was to watch as Milosevic withdrew his police and returned his troops to barracks. In the beginning he complied. The German general Klaus Naumann had helped broker the ceasefire deal.

General Klaus Naumann: He really did what he had asked him to do. He withdrew within 48 hours some 6000 police officers [from Kosovo] and the military back into the barracks. This was also confirmed by the OSCE verification mission."

AL: This [KLA activity] though was much harder to monitor. Where the Serbs withdrew, the KLA moved forward filling the vacuum. For the ceasefire agreement had a fatal flaw. It was one-sided. It had required nothing verifiable from the KLA.

General Agim Ceku (KLA military leader): The ceasefire was very useful to us. It enabled us to get organised, to consolidate, to grow.

Wolfgang Petritsch (EU special envoy to Kosovo): They were really growing ever stronger from day to day. And there was nobody to really stop them.

General Agim Ceku (KLA military leader): We aimed to spread our units over as wide a territory as possible. We wanted KLA units and cells across the whole of Yugoslavia.

AL: At Pudujevo in the north of Kosovo, the KLA now filled the very positions the Serbs had vacated. The pattern was repeated across the province. William Walker's deputy was a British general. He and his colleagues could see what the KLA was doing but had no means of stopping or even discouraging it.

General John Drewienkiewicz (KVM): The KLA infiltrated forward.

Wolfgang Petritsch (EU special envoy to Kosovo): The KLA basically came back into old positions that they held before the summer offensive.

General Drewienkiewicz: And this then started to be a factor in dealing with the Serbs. Because the Serbs said to us: well, hang on, the deal was that we withdrew from these things and you were going to police the agreement. So can you get these KLA out of the trenches that we were in a month ago?

AL: But they couldn't. At NATO headquarters there was growing disquiet. We've obtained confidential minutes of the North Atlantic Council or NAC, NATO's governing body. They talk of the KLA as the main initiator of the violence and state it has launched what appears to be a deliberate campaign of provocation. This is how William Walker reported the situation then - in private.

General Naumann: Ambassador Walker stated in the NAC that the majority of violations was caused by the KLA.

AL: Walker didn't admit that in public at the time. He still doesn't.

AL to William Walker: You told the North Atlantic Council that it was the KLA side which were largely responsible.

WW: I would have to go back and re-read my notes. Most of the briefings I gave to the North Atlantic Council was that both sides were in non-compliance. Both sides were doing things that were provocative. Obviously, it was easier to [long pause] point at the government.

AL to Madeleine Albright: But there was no clear mechanism to punish them [the KLA] if they failed to behave in what you might call a reasonable manner.

MA: I think the punishment was that they would lose completely the backing of the US and the Contact Group.

AL: With US backing for the KLA now barely concealed, Milosevic sent the army back into action to clear the KLA out of Podujevo. The doomed procession to war with NATO had begun.

AL: The KLA continued to smuggle arms over mountain passes from Albania. Albanian civilians were press-ganged into serving. Before dawn on the 15th December, they walked into a well-prepared Serbian ambush. Most of those taken by surprise fled back into Albania. But 31 Albanian men were killed. Later on the same day in an apparent act of revenge what remained of ethnic co-existence in the city of Pec nearby was to be torn apart. A group of hooded, masked men drove up to this bar [picture shown of Panda bar] which was popular with young Serbs. [6 of them were killed]

AL: Walker condemned both the ambush on the border and the killings in the bar in equal measure.

WW: It really looked as if it was a tit-for-tat killing. The KLA hearing about their people being killed up on the border had done this in Pec.

AL to WW: There is a huge difference, isn't there, between people killed in a legitimate military exchange and a bunch of hooded unknowns walking into a bar and killing some teenagers?

WW: I think the point is we didn't really know what had happened at Pec. Yes, the government was saying it was KLA gangsters who had come in and sprayed this bar. When you don't know what has happened, it's a lot more difficult to pronounce yourself.

AL: One month later Walker was to break this rule to spectacular effect. He pronounced himself with absolute certainty about a massacre that occurred here in the village of Racak. Even now, more than a year on, important questions about what happened here remain unanswered. This is the story of that massacre, of the political uses to which it was put, of how it galvanised the west to go to war and of the pivotal role played by William Walker. There was nothing remarkable about Racak except that by January 1999 the KLA had moved in, most of the villagers had fled and trenches had been dug on the edge of the village.

Paula Ghedini (UN refugee agency): We encountered many villages where the villagers themselves told us in very clear terms that they would prefer to be left completely alone. Often times they felt that if a KLA group were to come into their village that would actually put them under greater threat.

AL: From camouflaged positions near Racak, the KLA launched well-prepared hit and run strikes against Serb patrols. In early January they killed 4 Serb policemen.

Zymer Lubovci (KLA fighter): We saw them coming so we prepared and opened fire. But it was guaranteed that every time we took action, they would take revenge on civilians.

AL: Racak did not have long to wait for that retaliation. The attack began on the morning of January 15th.

Hasim Thaci (KLA leader): A ferocious struggle took place. We suffered heavy losses, but so did the Serbs. They set out to commit atrocities. Because a key KLA unit was based in this area.

AL: International observers watched from safe high ground as Serb forces took control of the village. They moved from house to house. Most were empty. The KLA had gone. When Serb forces pulled out in the afternoon they announced they'd killed 15 KLA men in the action. The international monitors entered the village and reported nothing unusual. Only next morning did the full force of Serb retaliation become apparent. William Walker went to see for himself.

WW: We progressed up the hill and about every 15-20 yards there was another body. As we kept going up the hill, I don't know how many bodies we passed before we got to a pile of bodies.

AL: By the time Walker arrived, the KLA had re-taken control of Racak.

WW [at Racak on 16th January 1999]: I think it's going to take me a few minutes to determine what I really should say. I'd like to hold a press conference in Pristina later this afternoon.

WW [at the press conference]: The facts as verified by KVM include evidence of arbitrary detentions, extra-judicial killings and the mutilation of unarmed civilians of Albanian ethnic origin in the village of Racak by the MUP and the VJ.

AL: In other words, he blamed the Serbian police and the Yugoslav army. Walker was supposed to be an independent international official. But did he seek direct instruction from the Americans?

WW: Without calling on any of my capitals, I told what I thought I'd seen which was the end result of a massacre.

Richard Holbrooke: William Walker the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission called me on a cell phone from Racak.

AL to WW: You don't remember calling Washington at all? WW shook his head.

General Wesley Clark (Supreme Allied Commander Europe): I got a call from Bill Walker. He said there's a massacre. I'm standing here. I can see the bodies.

AL to WW: And you didn't speak to General Clark or anybody like that? WW shook his head.

AL: Walker's comments gave the green light to enter Kosovo's war. The KLA had pulled in its mighty ally.