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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Is the army going back to Kosovo?
The general says, 'we shall see'

Some 10,000 new military draft notices have been printed and are ready for use at the headquarters of the Yugoslav Army (VJ), report several sources close to its commanders. Impossible to verify officially, the report continues to fuel speculation that the army is ready for a fighting return to Kosovo.

By Srdjan Staletovic in Leskovac

Whilst many in Belgrade, northern Serbia and Vojvodina are readying to back the opposition and force out the regime, their fellows in central and southern Serbia - in towns like Kraljevo, Krusevac, Aleksandrovac, Nis and Leskovac - are readying instead to join the VJ in a new Kosovo war.

A volunteer unit from Nis that served alongside regular VJ troops in Kosovo wrote to their local army command earlier this month pledging readiness to return to Kosovo. The letter was signed by 40 soldiers, including veterans of wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. "Only tell us where and how," they said.

"My 40 men already have arms, although we left quite a lot of arms there (in Kosovo)," unit commander 'B.J.' told Balkans Crisis Report. "With our (men) who are already in the field, we do not need much, we are only waiting for the order." B.J., from Nis, said they are going back to Kosovo: "It has been delayed somewhat. Now we are told 'October 10 or 25'. Doesn't matter, we are ready."

Another junior officer, serving with the VJ in Leskovac, showed Balkans Crisis Report his diary entry for June 16, the day the VJ agreed to quit Kosovo. His note described the deal as "a capitulation". He has no apartment for his family and no regular income to support them, but is ready to return to the province. "Well," he said, "I am sorry that I am not there already."

Many VJ officers, and much of the VJ's military equipment withdrawn from Kosovo in June were restationed in southern Serbia. According to some, many troops remained behind in Kosovo as civilians. An officer based in Leskovac at a command outpost of a large VJ unit moved out of Kosovo said these ex-soldiers "have been waiting for some time" for the force to return.

"They have managed to survive and stick it out there," he said, "but now it really angers me that no one in the Army has the courage to go to Prizren (a Kosovo town 50 kilometres south west of Pristina) and take them their salaries. If for nothing else, we should return because of them."

He boasts that Serb forces are already operating in areas of Kosovo where Serbs still live in numbers, and indeed, NATO forces in Kosovo have complained that small Serbian paramilitary units are crossing over into the province.

The officer in Leskovac said the Serb forces were already well established. "The security infrastructure in northern Kosovska Mitrovica (a Serb populated area) is under our control," he claims.

He claims that the Serbs' resistance in Kosovska Mitrovica is organised by several hundred Serbian policemen in civilian clothes who are "excellent at coordinating their work with the (Serbian) military in that town".

Recent reports partially substantiate the claim. One of three Serbs killed in a gun battle with Russian KFOR peacekeepers in the village of Korminjane on September 6, was found to be carrying a police ID. The UN resolution and the follow up military-technical agreement between NATO and the VJ allows for the future return of "an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian personnel" to Kosovo, to guard Serb sites and monuments, without a specified date when that should be. NATO says the time is not yet.

But many Kosovo Serbs who remained after the VJ withdrew are already welcoming the return of Serbian 'reinforcements' to the province, in apparent defiance of NATO wishes.

Many fear attacks by vengeful Kosovo Albanians. One, 'A.S.', a former journalist with Radio Pristina, did not want to discuss the situation over the phone from his new home with his family in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica. "You know that I cannot talk this way, but ever since the reinforcement arrived from Belgrade, I sleep better."

General Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the VJ Third Army Corps, based in Kosovo before withdrawing in June, has been visiting VJ units back in Leskovac and Nis. He will not talk about the return of the VJ to Kosovo.

"The thing is underway," he replied briefly. "We shall see."

Some veterans of the conflict believe they were not defeated but were ordered out by politicians. They argue that they left a job undone and that they could give NATO a solid fight. "Now I know the field and know how to fight," said reservist 'R.S.', a clerk from Aleksandrovac. "I expect we will win this time."

Others in Aleksandrovac think differently. A group of reservists who deserted their units in Kosovo when NATO began airstrikes said they will not respond to the draft again. "That was not war last time, and it would not be one next time," said one. "We would be like a crushed gang."

In Krusevac, where the biggest revolt by VJ troops took place during the 78 day NATO campaign, most of those interviewed said they would not go back to Kosovo.

But senior reservist sergeant 'M.K.', from a village near Krusevac said that that "at least ten comrades are willing to go to Kosovo as patriots". He called it a matter of honour. "I did not go there in order to flee. We will go again, but this time we shall stay, as the Serbs have always done."

On Thursday Pavkovic's men began tactical exercises around the Serbian town of Prokuplje, 20 kilometres southwest of Nis. Last week a tank brigade that played a major part in the Kosovo operations before June, moved from Kraljevo to the Krusevac area. This is fuelling talk locally that the VJ indeed plans to 'go down again' - i.e. south to Kosovo.

A reservist captain, 'D.R.' from Kraljevo, find other reasons to go. "If I don't have a job and salary here," he asked, "why wouldn't I go to Kosovo for a military daily fee?"

He claims that elite VJ units, including the 63rd parachute brigade and 72nd brigade have redeployed in the region and divided up into operational units. "I hope we shall now go to Kosovo with a clear plan of what and how," he added.

Analysts in Belgrade tend to dismiss talk of invading Kosovo as sabre-rattling in the service of the regime. The opposition has just got a programme of nationwide street protests underway, aiming to remove the present government in favour of a transitional authority. They also have their eye on Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the rump Yugoslav federation.

"The regime will wait a week or two to see whether the demonstrations will become massive. If the opposition succeeds in it, the regime will need to divert attention to Kosovo, but also to Montenegro," one analyst theorised.

Others argue that the army is not up to an all-out war with the NATO pact. "It seems that there are still people left in the Yugoslav Army whose palms are itching and who would like to pin up another rank," said former army colonel Dragan Vuksic to Balkans Crisis Report earlier this month.

Yet according to an opinion poll last week, the army is still the most trusted institution in the country. Aware of this and anxious to divert attention elsewhere, the government may only now be deciding where to start the next crisis - Kosovo, Montenegro or some other hotspot, such as the Muslim populated Serbiann Sandzak region.

The regime now has limited options open to it. If it decides to use the army to prolong its hold on power, it will not be making a mistake to start their work in southern Serbia. There, for the time being at least, the citizens would rather go off to a new war behind the authorities, rather than join a protest march behind the opposition.

Srdjan Staletovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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