West remains silent as offensive by Serb troops tightens grip on Kosovo

 

A group of policemen had just skittered down the hillside from a brightly burning house south of Stimlje on Monday when several reporters approached them.

Why was the house aflame? "Because it is wood," one of the policemen said after a long pause.

How did the fire start? "I don't know. They must have been smoking," he added with a grin.

As scores of ethnic Albanian towns burn on the 11th day of a huge assault by troops of the Yugoslav army and Interior Ministry, the government has adopted the policeman's approach to dealing with repeated western calls to halt the offensive and negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Officials consistently say the artillery, mortar and machinegun fire that has destroyed more than a hundred villages, killed hundreds of civilians and pushed more than 200,000 others from their homes was provoked by "terrorists" with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian separatist force.

This strategy of blaming the other side, an approach that the Yugoslav government honed during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, has worked perfectly during the last two weeks. Despite increasingly ferocious attacks by regular Yugoslav army troops against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority - something that western officials once said would provoke an angry response - capitals from Washington to Paris to Moscow have largely been quiet recently.

A series of demands made on June 13th by members of the so-called "contact group" of six western nations concerned with the Balkans has never been fulfilled, including a call that the government "cease all action affecting the civilian population," permit an unimpeded supply of humanitarian aid and allow continuous monitoring of the events in Kosovo by foreign diplomats.

Two-and-a-half months later, such western sabre-rattling, which culminated in a highly-publicised five-hour demonstration of NATO air power over neighbouring Albania and Macedonia, has not been repeated. And the angry diplomacy of a month ago, when Britain proposed a UN Security Council resolution that would have cleared the way for possible military strikes, ebbed and never flowed again.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia has through diligent but consistent effort been able to place the military leaders of the insurgency in a vice, and now he is beginning to turn the handle. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

In the past few days, more than a dozen villages formerly held by the rebels have been shelled into submission. Jablanica and Smonica, villages in western Kosovo that had been furiously contested, fell to police on Monday. A highway between the capital, Pristina, and Prizren came under police control that afternoon, after a lengthy series of battles destroyed houses along much of the route.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 per cent of Kosovo's population but control none of its levers of power, have an explanation for what they see as a recent disastrous turn of events. It is due, they claim, to "the green light", an alleged secret decision by western governments to support a vigorous assault on the KLA so its extremist leaders will lay down their arms and sign a deal that grants Kosovo autonomy but not the independence that most of the population craves.

US officials deny that any western nation could have made such an encouraging offer to Mr Milosevic. They claim that the lack of action to stop the Yugoslav assault cannot be explained so simply. Rather, they say, its roots lie in several factors.

The Yugoslav government initially said the principal aim of its current offensive was to regain control of the major highways in Kosovo, a goal that many western military officials said they considered reasonable. "Every nation has the right to control its highways," said a high-ranking US official as the offensive got under way.

But in Kosovo the idea seems absurd - or at least impractical. The highways go through remote canyons and hills that can be readily seized by the rebels, however briefly. Moreover, the offensive last week not only targeted highways but sought to crush every major rebel headquarters and capture or kill as many rebels and sympathisers as possible.

Serbian forces overran the city of Malisevo, a rebel stronghold; are continuing the siege of another at Junik; and arrested hundreds of residents of the city of Orahovac.

At the outset of the offensive, rebel fighters were said to have tried to take over Orahovac, which the Serbs hit with overwhelming force. It was hard, one senior US official said, for the Clinton administration to criticise Mr Milosevic's forces for merely trying to hold on to the city.

But rebel leaders have since disputed that they sought to capture the city, and in any event Yugoslav security forces have responded disproportionately to any provocation, at Orahovac or elsewhere.

A senior US Defence Department official who briefed the press on July 15th noted: "We're not anywhere near making a decision for any kind of armed intervention in Kosovo right now."

He listed only one thing that might trigger a policy change: "I think if some levels of atrocities were reached that would be intolerable, that would probably be a trigger."

No sustained or large-scale atrocities have been proved in the latest offensive, moving more than one western official to comment about the Yugoslav government's restraint. But independent assessments of damage and casualties have been prevented because most foreigners have been kept at bay by Serbian police checkpoints all over Kosovo. Access is provided once the fighting is over, but there are often indications that special effort has been made to cleanse sites of any corpses.

Perhaps the chief reason western governments have been reluctant to intervene against the offensive is that none shares the aspiration of virtually every ethnic Albanian in Kosovo to win an independent state.

The common wisdom in Washington and allied capitals is that this would provoke a regional disaster, by giving rise to renewed nationalism among ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro and in neighbouring Macedonia; any attempt by them to unite would provoke wider bloodshed, US officials predict.