March 20, 2004
Beware the Ides of March in Kosovo and a terrible spiral of violence that is a major setback for EU and NATO peacekeeping and nation building efforts in the Balkans. Heres the big reason small incidents are escalating into a what is a major NATO crisis: Kosovar Serb anger at low-level ethnic cleansing by Albanian Kosovar gangsters has been rising for months. The other reason: Kosovar Albanians have fresh memories of mistreatment by the Serbs.
Heres the trail of events. On March 15 a gunman wounded an 18 year-old Kosovar Serb in a drive-by shooting outside the tow of Caglavica. On March 16, a contingent of Kosovar Serbs, angry at what they thought was slow police response, set up a road block outside Pristina. The Serbs asserted that the man who had wounded the Serb on March 16 was an Albanian. When UN police arrived at the roadblock, some Serbs started throwing stones. A UN cop was hurt in the incident. Kosovar Serbs then demanded better protection from the UN. The Kosovo government asked the public to remain calm and condemned the shooting. However, three Kosovar Albanian children were reported drowned on March 16 near the village of Cabra. A fourth boy said he was pursued by Kosovar Serbs. The three boys who drowned had tried to escape by crossing the Ibar River, which is swollen from spring floods. On March 17 a huge riot broke out in Mitrovica, site of a long string of bridge confrontations. Mitrovica is divided into Albanian and Serb sectors. Rioters from both sides met near the bridge. UN police also showed up. It was reported that a Serb fired an AK-47 and two Albanians responded with gunfire. When the shooting ended four people were dead. A subsequent report said that six people died after an exchange of heavy gunfire across the dividing line in Mitrovica.
News of the Mitrovica riot spread throughout Kosovo and Serbia. What NATO sources now call ethnic cleansing of Serbs began against Kosovar Serb communities throughout the province. A total of 31 people died March 17-18 (no breakdown on ethnicity). NATO troops evacuated Serbs from several threatened neighborhoods. On March 18 KFOR ordered its troops to respond with proportional force when they encountered resistance. The UN Security Council condemned the Kosovo violence. The most articulate political statement was provided by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (excerpt quoted by Radio Free Europe): "There are deep historic divisions, going back centuries, right across the Balkans, and many of these historic pressures are represented in the divided communities in Kosovo. Building nations is not an easy issue...what would have happened if we, in our backyard, had allowed that kind of ethnic cleansing, brutal genocidal slaughter to go on unchecked? There was in practice no alternative to us intervening in Kosovo. We were right to do it, and we're right to stay there.
On March 18 at least 17 Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo were set on fire. In the town of Lipjan, Kosovar Albanians threw grenades at Kosovar Serbs. After a firebomb was thrown at a church in neighboring Bosnia, the Bosnian government ordered extra security around religious buildings, in order to stave off the possible spread of trouble from Kosovo to Bosnia. Serb and Montenegrin officials claimed the spreading Kosovo violence was premeditated. One Serb official said the attacks were planned by Albanians to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo. Serbs in Serbia reportedly burned two mosques as a reprisal for the church burnings. One of the mosques attacked was a mosque in Belgrade dating from the 17th century.
Major action continued on March 19. 300 French KFOR troops assaulted three buildings in an Albanian enclave in Mitrovicas Serb quarter. The French troops said that snipers had been active in the buildings. Serbs protested in Belgrade against the UNs failure to insure the safety of Kosovar Serbs. At the end of the day the death toll for March 17-19 remained at 31, but the number of injured had jumped to over 500. Another critical figure is the number of Kosovar Serbs driven from their homes. The only figure at the moment is several hundred.
A KFOR press release said that all Kosovar and NATO political leaders were calling for calm in Kosovo. Britain promised another 750 troops (150 arrived March 19). Germany promised to send an additional 600 troops (scheduled to arrive March 20). France said another 400 French troops would be dispatched (and 240 of them arrived March 19). Italy promised another 130 paratroopers. Denmark will send another 100. The US added 100 troops on March 18. On March 18 KFOR had around 18,000 troops in Kosovo. The reinforcements should bring the figure to over 20,000.
Well and good because on March 19 Serbia threatened military action in Kosovo if NATO forces did not do enough to protect the vulnerable Kosovar Serbs. Specifically, Serbia said it had the right to end its hands-off policy in Kosovo if the fighting in Kosovo continued. Besides the concerns expressed by Bosnia, Macedonia is worried about the spread of inter-ethnic violence.