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Verifying Violence

As the high-stakes effort to get agreement from Belgrade and the KLA continued, so did the war.
By Anthony Borden

While international diplomacy focused on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the situation within Kosovo itself has deteriorated. The province is on a knife-edge, between war and peace, and most of the decisions effecting its future will be taken elsewhere.


Any remaining concept of a ceasefire has vanished. In recent days, heavy fighting has erupted throughout the province, particularly in Kacanik in the south, Vucetrin in the north, and in villages outside the old town of Prizren in the southwest. "Truce Monitors Report Increased Fighting," as an agency headline put it during the week.


The gravest concern on the ground was raised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Tuesday, March 2, after fighting at Ivaja and two other villages around Kacanik. Kacanik is a critical strategic link to the south, and its high hills overlook the main route to Macedonia, where NATO troops have been arriving in anticipation of a Kosovo intervention. In an area which had previously been relatively quiet, the KLA had recently begun to operate.


Several houses and farm buildings were destroyed, and livestock killed, and reporters at the smouldering remains of the deserted village found four bodies. Around 400 villagers were rounded up, and the men then divided from the women and children. For several hours the next morning, the mission reported that around 40 men who had been held in the local Kacanik prison could not be located.


Subsequent reports indicated that the authorities had released all but a handful of men suspected as KLA, and no large groups of people were missing. Deputy Head of Mission Maj. Gen. John Drewienkiewicz described the Ivaja operation as a "moderately responsible" action by Yugoslav forces against a fresh KLA operations base there. He concluded that the Yugoslav Army (VJ) had targetted buildings in the village set up by the KLA as a headquarters and a hospital. The actions also seemed a nod to the Western troops assembling across the border in Macedonia, and at least one bridge on the main route to the frontier had been wired for demolition.


But fear of an impending disaster is high. "Four times in the past week we have said that we are not sure where these people are," Drewienkiewicz allowed, "and each time we seem to be able to find them. . . . We worry that the next time people are taken around the corner by the VJ, somone will find that they are all dead."


Drewienkiewicz insists that the OSCE mission is playing an important role. It is impossible to know whether, "had [the OSCE] not been there scouring the countryside, something bad might not have happened," he says. But with such minimal respect for the October accord, the OSCE has actually had no "compliance" to "verify", and the real purpose of the mission seemed adrift.


"We are supposed to verify an agreement, and instead we are verifying violence," acknowledged the OSCE spokesperson Beatrice Lacoste. Far from confirming compliance with technical questions such as force deployments, weapons storage and the like, as envisaged in the agreement between Milosevic and US envoy Richard Holbrooke, the mission has become more of a large-scale conflict monitoring operation--and just perhaps little more than deck chairs on Titanic.


Such anxieties do clash with a sense of hopefulness, too, at least among Albanians. If a deal is agreed, the prospects of a sudden peace offer the possibility of radical change and the opening up of Albanian political, social and economic life. And despite the extreme frustration that many Albanians also express over the KLA's holdout on a signature, the feeling is that ultimately it will come. But with so much uncertainty about Belgrade's willingness to accept the agreement--not only reiterating his admant refusal to US envoy Richard Holbrooke but also issuing arrest warrants for three members of the Albanian negotiating delegation and cracking down on the Kosovo Albanain press--the situation in the field gave the impression of sliding towards a larger disaster.


Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.


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