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The Anatomy of a Purge
Milosevic's Intimate Understanding of His Enemies
Facilitates His Campaign of Terror Against the Kosovars

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By R. Jeffrey Smith and William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 11, 1999; Page A1

After lingering beneath a Rembrandt painting in the Belgrade presidential palace, Yugoslav Gen. Momcilo Perisic quietly pulled aside NATO's two top generals, Wesley K. Clark of the United States and Klaus Naumann of Germany. Ducking into an office, he dismissed his security detail and turned up the volume on a television set to drown out any eavesdropping devices. He had something urgent to say.

It was Oct. 25 of last year at the end of a long, strained day. Clark and Naumann had come to Belgrade to negotiate the terms of Yugoslav troop deployments in Kosovo. But the NATO generals had found President Slobodan Milosevic and his military high command – led by Perisic – brusque and almost carefree in their defiance of the West.

Now Perisic sounded grave, worried: "He said the army was the last democratic institution in the country, and that it would be a disaster if his forces were ever destroyed in a conflict with NATO," Naumann recalled. "He gave the impression that for purely patriotic reasons, he wanted to save the army at all costs."

But just weeks later, Perisic was gone – fired by Milosevic in a purge of independent-minded officers. And soon after, Milosevic's new military leaders and his security police would jointly begin laying the groundwork for a secret plan – "Operation Horseshoe" – designed to eradicate a rebel threat in Kosovo and, as it would turn out, radically change the ethnic landscape of the province, even at the cost of certain war with NATO.

In retrospect, many Western analysts see Perisic's firing 4½ months ago as a key turning point on the road to war – and an early, missed clue to Milosevic's intentions. Naumann believes that Perisic was trying to send a signal about the planned Yugoslav operation in Kosovo on that night in October. If so, it would not have been the last such signal – nor the last that NATO failed to interpret accurately.

Since NATO bombing began on March 24, more than 40,000 Yugoslav army troops, special police units and uniformed paramilitaries have carried out one of the most ambitiously ruthless military campaigns in Europe in half a century. While virtually ignoring the NATO forces attacking their country, the troops have devastated the ethnic Albanian rebels and civilians whose desire for self rule in Kosovo threatens the internal integrity of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia.

Racing across Kosovo, backed by 300 tanks and 150 artillery pieces, Yugoslav forces have overrun all seven strongholds of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army. They have damaged an estimated 250 towns and villages, burning more than 50 to the ground. They have executed scores of civilians – perhaps many, many more – and are believed to have detained as many as several thousand men whose fate is unknown. And, virtually overnight, they have engineered the greatest refugees crisis in Europe since World War II, emptying villages and cities in forced expulsions that have sent more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians into exile and increased the total number of displaced people in the past year to 900,000, half Kosovo's prewar population.

The exact scope and effects of the Yugoslav offensive, as well as precise details of how it was conducted and by whom, may not be known for some time. Journalists, relief workers, and other outside observers have been denied access to Kosovo since the NATO bombing began, and it is unclear when they will be allowed to return. Another layer of confusion and secrecy has been added by the ongoing NATO air war and the scant information available about it.

From the start, analysts and policymakers in Washington and Europe have speculated about whether the razing of Kosovo by Milosevic's army and police forces was the result of an organized plan or a spontaneous, chaotic reaction driven by ethnic hatred and the NATO bombardment.

It is not an academic question. Knowing who planned and carried out the Kosovo operation, and how it was accomplished, may eventually help ethnic Albanians in their searches for missing family members and stolen possessions. U.S. and European officials also pledge to develop such evidence for use in war crimes prosecutions. More generally, details about how the Yugoslav operation was prepared and implemented may indicate what NATO faces as it pursues a policy committed to restoring the refugees to their homes.

A reconstruction of events of the last several months by Washington Post correspondents indicates that the Yugoslav offensive – including random executions and the forced exodus from towns and cities – flowed from a coherent plan designed by Milosevic and his generals and prepared over many weeks by Yugoslav officials. Using terror, overwhelming force, and an understanding of its enemies both foreign and domestic, the country's leadership carried out what one senior NATO military official called a "pre-planned, premeditated and meticulously executed military campaign."

What follows is an account of the operation based on scores of interviews in Europe and Washington and on documentary evidence, including intelligence reports. The accounts were gathered from U.S. and NATO military and political officials, from European and American human rights and relief sources, and from refugees in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Some of the first signs were subtle, insignificant alone and too small for anyone to add up.

In January and February, for instance, a newspaper in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, reported that Yugoslav officials were collecting key documents and records from different villages in central or western Kosovo – for safekeeping, the government said. Around the same time, valuable religious icons, paintings and historical manuscripts were removed from museums and libraries and trucked north toward Belgrade.

In February, ethnic Albanian politicians briefly detained in the towns of Prizren and Decani were astounded to be told, they recalled later, "You will soon be forced to leave."

But there were other, more substantial omens, some of them widely reported, that the Serbs were preparing for fierce fighting on a greater scale than had been seen so far in their yearlong battle against the Kosovo Liberation Army. The army, which seeks independence for Kosovo, claims to represent the mostly Muslim, ethnic Albanian population that, before the offensive, accounted for 90 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million people.

By some accounts, the current offensive actually began on Christmas Eve, when Yugoslav units attacked rebel army positions near the northern Kosovo town of Podujevo. The assault accomplished little in military terms. But it was a successful political foray, drawing little Western protest and showing that the army could defy the 1,400 international inspectors in the province to monitor compliance with a cease-fire negotiated in October.

"They really started preparing for this offensive in early December," said a senior NATO officer. "The leading edge of it [was seen] ... on 24 December. That battle group never got home [and remained] ... positioned to control the lines of supply and communication back into Serbia."

All through January, Western officials monitored the dispersal of the 14,000 Yugoslav army troops inside Kosovo and the infiltration of additional infantry units from the rest of Serbia. Belgrade began to move a large number of troops and armored vehicles south from the cities of Nis, Kraljevo, Kragujevac and Leskovac toward the Kosovo border. At its peak, this army-in-waiting numbered up to 15,000 troops.

NATO intelligence analysts viewed the buildup as a prelude to another major military campaign against the rebels, like the one they had seen unfold the previous summer. The possibility that Milosevic and his commanders were plotting an attack aimed at cleansing the province of ethnic Albanians was listed only as an unlikely "option" the government might pursue.

"We thought the Serbs were preparing for a spring offensive that would target KLA strongholds, which had also been reinforced in previous months," said Clark in an interview. "But we never expected the Serbs would push ahead with the wholesale deportation of the ethnic Albanian population."

In addition to regular army units and special police, however, Belgrade also infiltrated fighters with long experience terrorizing ethnic populations. Paramilitary units under the control of Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, who was indicted on international war crimes charges from the Bosnian war, were installed at a site northwest of the city of Kosovska Mitrovica and in the southern town of Velika Hoca, according to Western sources. They were joined in Kosovo by units loyal to Franko "Frenki" Simatovic, another Serb implicated in a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war.

The military buildup accelerated during peace negotiations at Rambouillet, France. By March 10, the Yugoslav army was moving troops and some of its most potent armor – M-84 tanks – into the province. Enough fuel to keep its vehicles running for a full month of operations was secreted in depots in the province, according to NATO estimates.

As Yugoslav forces grew and the peace process collapsed, U.S. diplomat William Walker, the head of the international monitoring team, decided to withdraw the inspectors from Kosovo, even though NATO was not yet ready to begin military operations and the monitors had been widely seen as the only remaining brake on Yugoslav troops.

"I knew it was going to get worse before it got better. But never in my wildest imagination did I think it was going to get as bad as it did," Walker said.

The Serbs were happy to see the monitors go. Officials expedited their departure into Macedonia, even cheering as the last of the distinctive orange vehicles crossed the border early on March 20.

"That was the day all hell broke loose," said a NATO intelligence official. "The Serbs were spring-loaded to go when the last observer left Kosovo."

Milosevic had prepared carefully for all-out war. Perhaps most importantly, he had unified for the first time tens of thousands of army and police forces in Kosovo, creating a tightly organized military machine that combined the formal power of tanks and armor with a terror-inducing network of ski-masked special police and civilian paramilitaries.

Milosevic's relations with the professional Yugoslav army had long been uneasy. He largely bypassed the army in his dual campaigns to suppress the rebel army in Kosovo and maintain unchallenged political power in Belgrade. Milosevic relied instead mainly on blue-uniformed Serbian Interior Ministry troops – known as the MUP – anti-terrorist squads and a loose network of violent Serbian nationalist civilian groups. These Interior Ministry-based forces included the Red Berets, led by Simatovic, who roamed Kosovo in armored vehicles in units of 15 to 25, as well as the irregular Tigers commanded by Arkan.

In Kosovo during 1998, approximately 10,000 Interior troops fought the rebels and harassed and sometimes massacred civilians in rural rebel strongholds. The regular army – deployed in Kosovo in about equal numbers – mostly stood aside, garrisoned in barracks or guarding borders with Macedonia and Albania. "During the summer campaign, the Yugoslav army was pretty clean," said a senior NATO military officer. But as confrontation with NATO approached, Milosevic moved decisively to carve a new role for the army.

Late in November, he fired the free-speaking Perisic, Yugoslavia's top general, who had publicly warned Milosevic that he should "not declare war on the whole world." In the ensuing shake-up, the Yugoslav leader appointed a loyalist as chief of staff, Gen. Dragolub Ojdanic. In Kosovo, he turned command of the main regular army force, the Yugoslav 3rd Army, over to Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, who is related to Milosevic by marriage. Pavkovic had earlier commanded the Pristina Corps, the main 3rd Army unit permanently deployed in Kosovo.

While diplomats negotiated in Rambouillet, Pavkovic made boisterous public comments denouncing the "creators of the new world order," threatening war and pledging that if NATO bombed, he would move quickly and forcefully against the rebel army, so that Yugoslavia could eliminate its internal enemies and prepare for external attack.

Pavkovic began to integrate 3rd Army brigades with Interior and special police units in Kosovo's major towns and cities. He also ordered the army for the first time to conduct joint operations with the Interior forces. The army's new role in Kosovo "was as clear as night and day," said a senior NATO intelligence official. "Instead of targeting KLA strongholds, the army started getting involved in systematic attacks on villages and civilians under the guise of winter exercises."

A massacre in the Kosovo village of Racak on Jan. 15 foreshadowed how army-police cooperation – and the involvement of paramilitary groups – would shape the coming campaign. Army units secured the village's perimeter and helped to shell it into submission. Police, anti-terrorist squads and paramilitaries entered and rounded up residents, eventually executing about 45 unarmed civilians, according to witnesses and later reconstructions by Western investigators.

Milosevic steadily reinforced both army and police forces in Kosovo as NATO's bombing deadline approached. Army special forces wearing characteristic all-white uniforms arrived in Srbica, Djakovica, Pristina, Suva Reka, Pec and other Kosovo cities.

Pavkovic sent the 3rd Army's 15th Armored Brigade to Pristina's airfield with a battle group that would secure lines of communication between the capital and Pec, Kosovo's second-largest city, according to U.S. sources. Army forces began to disperse to Kosovo villages, linking up with Interior police and intelligence units. Other 3rd Army units gathered on Kosovo's northeast border.

On the eve of war, both the military personnel and equipment Milosevic had trained on Kosovo – nearly 27,000 troops inside the province and 15,000 on its border, as well as tanks and heavy artillery – suggested something much larger than the annual spring clearing of rebel army units.

"You don't need tanks to fight an insurgency," said a Western official. "They needed them to attack villages."

War erupted the night of March 24 with the wail of sirens in Belgrade and the amber flare of explosions on the capital's horizon. But especially at the start, it was fought on two almost unrelated fronts. While NATO pounded air defense and infrastructure targets scattered around Yugoslavia, Milosevic's 3rd Army and Interior forces poured freely and rapidly into action against the rebel army and its civilian supporters in Kosovo.

Continued on Page Two

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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