NY Times
Spiral of violence in Kosovo divides US and its allies

By JANE PERLEZ

March 12, 2000


WASHINGTON, March 11 - Nine months after they declared victory in the war over Kosovo, Washington and its NATO allies are fighting among themselves over how to keep a deteriorating situation in the Serbian province from spinning out of their control.

Since June, tens of thousands of alliance troops and a United Nations' administration have failed to prevent de facto partitioning of Kosovo or continued ethnic bloodshed. The threat of more violence is intensifying as both Serbs and Albanians try to foment unrest across the border with Serbia proper.

The problems are provoking mounting criticism from Congress -- even envisaging possible American withdrawal -- as well as reluctance from NATO allies to keep troops in Kosovo and pleas for more money from an underfunded United Nations mission struggling to keep the peace.

At the same time, administration officials acknowledge that an overriding priority is to avoid American casualties and keep Kosovo out of the news during an election year. One administration official, who served in Bosnia, said that the driving force behind the policy now is to keep it "off the front page."

The situation has frayed to the point where Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met Friday with European allies at NATO headquarters to discuss how to avoid what she called a "hot spring" of new violence. The meeting yielded no statements about planned alliance action, although Dr. Albright's spokesman, James P. Rubin, said she was confident that more European troops were being found for Kosovo.

Mr. Rubin said he would be in Kosovo next week "to urge restrained behavior on the part of the Kosovo Albanians." But similar warnings from Dr. Albright herself, and from NATO commanders, have failed to quell unrest in an Albanian-dominated area of southern Serbia bordering eastern Kosovo.

Over all, administration officials acknowledge that they are finding Kosovo much harder than Bosnia, where a peace agreement with the force of international law was signed by the belligerents to end a war in which all sides were worn down after three and a half years of fighting.

In Kosovo, a vague United Nations resolution formally concluded hostilities, leaving the status of the Serbian province in limbo and a weak United Nations mission in control of Albanians and Serbs seeking revenge against one another.

Despite the presence of about 37,000 NATO-led troops in Kosovo, the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, has continued to meddle in northern Kosovo, and elements of the Albanians' secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army are stirring new trouble on the border of eastern Kosovo.

At the same time, the division of the city of Mitrovica -- with Serbs in the north, Albanians in the south and barbed wire between them -- leaves Kosovo effectively partitioned, something the Clinton administration has vowed it will not accept.

The administration's concern over avoiding American casualties was only heightened last month when G.I.'s sent into northern Mitrovica were forced to retreat before a stone-throwing crowd of Serbs.

Since then, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, has placed restrictions on how the 5,000 American soldiers in Kosovo can be deployed, even though they are under NATO command. He followed up with a surprise visit on Tuesday to the American troops in eastern Kosovo to seek reassurances that the risk to the troops had been minimized.

In a further indication of distress in Washington about Kosovo, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner, said he would seek to withhold half of the $2 billion appropriation for American troops in Kosovo unless European nations increased their financial contributions to the United Nations efforts there.

"What has the coalition achieved?" Mr. Warner asked in the Senate on Thursday, referring to the United States and NATO. The military had stopped the large-scale fighting, he said, but added: "Unacceptable, dangerous levels of criminal activity continue, and put our troops at constant risk. Precious little other progress has taken place in Kosovo."

Mr. Warner said that if President Clinton could not certify that the Europeans had met their commitments in Kosovo, he would call for the remaining $1 billion to be used for a "safe, orderly and phased withdrawal" of American soldiers.

The White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said the administration did not believe that any of the money for American troops should depend on whether the Europeans contributed more to Kosovo. "We share the overall objective that the Europeans should do their fair share," he said. "The Europeans have done more recently, and it is our hope that we can move forward with this money without any contingencies."

At NATO headquarters in Belgium, the commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is in a battle with the Pentagon over how to save the situation in Kosovo, has asked the 19 allies for more troops. Given Washington's reluctance to expose American soldiers to danger, however, other nations are also hanging back.

Only three NATO countries -- Britain, France and Denmark -- allow their troops in Kosovo to be deployed quickly, wherever they are needed in the province, without prior consultation with their capitals, NATO officials said.

General Clark has argued that troop levels in Kosovo have dropped too much as some nations have already withdrawn soldiers. He has told the North Atlantic Council, the decision-making body of NATO, that he needs more soldiers and more flexibility in how they are deployed. NATO forces are being reinforced in Mitrovica, where 16 French peacekeepers were injured this week.

So far, according to NATO officials, no nation has come forward with more troops. The French, who promised an extra battalion of soldiers two weeks ago, have now made that offer contingent on other nations' coming forward too, they said.

"Nations don't want to expose their people to particular dangers," the chief United Nations administrator, Bernard Kouchner, a Frenchman, said after the French troops were injured. "The reaction of governments is to withdraw their troops" in such a situation, he said.

The Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said that the administration expected the French to "live up to their commitment." He added, "It's important that everybody work together, police and military forces, to provide the troops we need, the people we need on the ground to maintain stability."

General Clark has asked NATO countries to contribute troops to a "multinational specialized unit" -- the euphemism for a riot control unit -- and to an intelligence-gathering unit, NATO officials said. The riot control unit has been considered too risky, and intelligence gathering is something that NATO nations have been reluctant to do under the alliance umbrella, though such a unit does operate in the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

To try to restore some authority in Mitrovica, Mr. Kouchner -- with the backing of the Clinton administration -- has appointed a retired American general, William L. Nash, as the civilian administrator there. Officials said General Nash, who commanded American troops in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996, has been chosen for his military background and his ability to bring disparate groups together.

But Mr. Kouchner said that while naming a new administrator was important, the appointment of one individual was unlikely to bring fundamental change to Mitrovica.

Senior administration officials who run the Kosovo policy publicly defend the situation, noting especially that the 800,000 Kosovo Albanians who fled a wave of Serbian repression that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed tens of thousands of homes have returned to lives that are better now than before the war.

"They did not freeze during the winter; construction went on," a senior administration official said. The official also pointed to the $2.6 billion that Congress appeared prepared to approve for the military and civilian operations in Kosovo.

Asked about the overall situation, Mr. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said that "we will be urging patience and time to meet the extremely difficult objectives."

The two likely presidential nominees, Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, have addressed the Kosovo issue intermittently on the campaign trail.

A spokesman for the Bush campaign, Scott McClellan, said on Friday that Mr. Bush had serious concerns about the administration's not being able to carry out the accord that ended the war.

He said Mr. Bush believed that "America must work hard to find political solutions for an orderly withdrawal from places like Bosnia and Kosovo," and Europeans should be the peacekeepers.

A spokesman for the Gore campaign, Tyler Beardsley, said that the administration was working "diligently with our allies to bring calm to Kosovo, particularly in Mitrovica." He added that "these difficulties should not obscure the progress we have made" in Kosovo.

One administration hope is that Mr. Kouchner's civilian authority will get all the money it needs from European countries that pledged billions of dollars last year.

Senator Warner said on Thursday that the Europeans should provide 2,000 more policemen for Kosovo to cope with violence that ranges from revenge killings to rampant smuggling.

But Mr. Kouchner said that while he desperately wanted more police, it was not clear that the police alone could quickly solve the problems stemming from deep bitterness between Albanians and Serbs.

For the moment, NATO officials said it was difficult to see how the effective partitioning of Mitrovica -- and hence of Kosovo -- could be reversed. It took 21 armored vehicles and large numbers of NATO-led troops just to return 40 Albanians to their homes on the northern side of Mitrovica, although more have since returned under lighter escort.

But if Kosovo is not kept in one piece, as the Albanians have insisted and as the administration had pledged, the relations between NATO and the Albanian community will worsen, the officials said.

"The Albanians will feel we have betrayed them," a senior NATO official said, "and will turn against us."

Much as the Serbian authorities singled out educated Albanians before and during the NATO air campaign, now Albanians are singling out the dwindling number of educated Serbs in an effort to expel all Serbs from the province, Mr. Kouchner said.

As an example of the increasing difficulties faced by Serbs in Albanian-dominated towns, he told the story of a Serbian gynecologist who chose to stay in his town, Gnjilane, after the war ended. The doctor, Josef Vasic, was one of two remaining Serbian doctors in the city, the American troops' main Kosovo base, and was shot and killed one Sunday morning as he left his clinic. He had spent much of his professional life treating Albanian women, and was one of the moderate Serbs working with Mr. Kouchner to try to build a functioning multiethnic Kosovo.

"He was my best ally," said Mr. Kouchner, who founded the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. "His death was one of the most horrible defeats. We were not able to protect him."



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