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

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.

The Serbian military leadership believed that, freed from the constraints of Western observers and operating at full bore, its army and police could eliminate the 9,000 or so Kosovo rebels as a serious fighting force within a week, according to U.S. officials. While some NATO and U.S. officials disputed this, saying that the rebel army was better armed and trained than a year earlier, the Serbs were right.

Since NATO leaders had ruled out a ground invasion and had positioned no troops along Kosovo's borders to menace or tie down Yugoslavia's army, Milosevic's forces were free to concentrate entirely on the rebels and their support base in Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population. Widely scattered and shielded by heavy cloud cover, the Yugoslav army and police operated with virtual impunity for more than a week, even by NATO's account.

Initially, fighting was heaviest in Kosovo's northeast, according to U.S. estimates based on satellite observation, as the 3rd Army's 15th Mechanized Brigade and 211th Armored Brigade swept the road and rail links between Pristina and Podujevo. Other elements of the Pristina Corps moved west into the towns and villages of the Drenica region, the rebels' traditional base, shelling villages and setting many homes on fire. Rural refugees began moving toward towns and cities.

After five days, by March 29, three 3rd Army brigades – the 15th, the 125th and the 243rd – were wreaking havoc south of Pristina, near the mid-size towns of Malisevo and Pagarusa. In one episode highlighted by NATO briefers, artillery units of the 243rd, commanded by Col. Krman Jelic, were reported to have shelled a temporary camp of tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians who had gathered in a field in the Pagarusa Valley.

All along the frontier with Albania, Yugoslav units moved against the rebel army's supply lines by attacking and emptying many border villages, forcing thousands of refugees either into towns such as Djakovica or in search of haven across the border in Albania.

Reports of numerous massacres of civilians have emerged from areas where the rebel army was strongest, and where the Serbs concentrated their counterinsurgency campaign. While the claims of atrocities have not been confirmed independently, extensive refugee accounts fall into a pattern along a corridor of towns and villages in southwest Kosovo, from Djakovica to Prizren. This area may have been especially violent, possibly besieged by a single group of Serbian army and police that moved through the area. The 3rd Army's 125th Motorized Brigade, commanded by Col. Seba Zdravkovic, its 252nd Armored Brigade, commanded by Col. Milos Mandic, and its 52nd Mixed Artillery Brigade, commanded by Col. Radojko Stefanovic, were operating in this area by the first days of April, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

Western officials now believe that the aim of attacking in the south and west was to clear a path to the border for a mass expulsion. "It was very intentionally done to drive large masses of Kosovars," said a NATO official. Thus, the southern city of Decani was attacked before Pec; Pec was struck before Klina; and Klina was assaulted before the central Kosovo towns of Malisevo, Orlate and Likovac, among others.

As the army's sweep across Kosovo proceeded, Milosevic publicly celebrated its achievements, announcing a decree on Serbian television on April 5 that awarded the country's Medal of Courage to eight brigade-level army commanders operating in Kosovo. These included Jelic and Mandic, who were honored "for personal courage in defense of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Two days later, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin cited many of those same medal winners while reading out a list of 3rd Army commanders who might be subject to eventual war crimes investigation.

Ethnic Albanian civilians discovered almost immediately that they – not just the rebel army – were the targets of the offensive. Yugoslav forces began shelling their neighborhoods and entire villages. Tanks and bulldozers knocked down or blew apart their homes. Houses that were left standing were torched by troops.

In village after village, refugees had strikingly similar experiences: They were ordered from their homes with a few minutes notice by paramilitary or Interior Ministry troops, sometimes given a deadline for gathering in a central spot. Many then passed a gantlet of other troops on their way out of town, where they were stripped of cash, possessions and sometimes their identity documents.

It was, as a Western diplomat said, "an integrated approach" involving multiple security forces. "The speed with which this occurred suggests that some operations officer said this is how this is going to happen."

As part of this pattern, a NATO official said, paramilitary soldiers or Interior Ministry troops "would roust the village and at the same time the [army] ... would move in and form a cordon. Then, at the appropriate time, the [army] commander would come in and say, 'Okay, I'm opening a cordon for you and I want you to go in a particular direction.' "

In many villages, paramilitary and Interior forces reportedly executed individuals or groups to create an instantaneous climate of terror that would hasten the evacuation of civilians. Refugees describe these killings as methodical and deliberate, as if to set an example. In some cases the assassins disguised their identities by wearing what one family near Pec described as "carnival masks," with images of vampires. Others hid behind black balaclavas that revealed only their eyes.

As terrified residents fled villages, they gathered in ever larger clusters, searching for safety, driven by troops on the roads eventually toward Kosovo's border or into towns. Typical of these was Djakovica, an industrial town with a usual population of 60,000, swollen by several thousand more during the last year of fighting.

Yugoslav forces began destroying houses in the town as early as March 24, refugees reported. The pace of destruction picked up dramatically a week later, and the level of violence was higher than in other cities, refugees said. Human Rights Watch reported that Yugoslav tanks bulldozed some houses and buildings and that Djakovica refugees arrived on the border without men aged between 20 and 50 among them.

The issue of missing men remains a haunting mystery 2½ weeks into the war. While some groups of refugees, especially from major cities, contained large numbers of adult men, others arrived depopulated of men of military age. Human Rights Watch believes that only 10 to 15 percent of men from rural areas who fled their homes have arrived across the border. Many may be hiding in the mountains, repeating a yearlong pattern in the countryside. Their fate remains unknown.

But there are also reports that the Serbs prevented men from fleeing. On March 30 and 31, there were a number of reported forced separations of men and women, according to accounts from refugees and relief groups. In the village of Ostrozub, 1,000 men were separated and taken away. In Velika Krusa, 3,000 men not originally from there were taken away. And in Ranubrave, 75 men were separated out.

The U.S. government has drawn attention to other unconfirmed but disturbing reports of mass detentions. In a published report, it cited refugee reports about thousands of prisoners held in an ammunition factory in Srbica, a former rebel stronghold that has been devastated by Yugoslav forces. In another case, refugees reported that a ferro-nickel factory in the town of Glogovac had been used as a detention center for large numbers of Kosovo residents.

Since the airstrikes began, NATO intelligence sources say it has been difficult to get incontrovertible evidence – other than the refugee accounts – about the true extent and nature of Serbian atrocities. NATO's Predator and Hunter reconnaissance drones have experienced problems getting detailed photographs because of frequent cloud cover.

Refugees report men being pulled from columns on the road and shot. In some cases men were herded into separate groups, then disappeared. Refugees and relief workers believe that thousands of rural men, fearing detention in their villages or being picked up on the roads, fled into the mountains.

"I think there are tens of thousands of men in the mountains," said James Ron of Human Rights Watch, who interviewed hundreds of refugees arriving in Albania.

But, while culling victims from the lines of refugees leaving Kosovo, the Yugoslav forces did not detain the mass flight. In fact, they soon moved to accelerate it.

The systematic, mechanized mass expulsion by rail, foot and bus of tens of thousands of civilians from Kosovo's major towns and cities involved all of the forces thrown into the offensive, and brought together the various strands developing across the province in the first days of the assault.

The mass exodus began over the weekend of March 27-28, four days after NATO began bombing. A meticulous, organized campaign carried out jointly by army, police and paramilitary units, the urban expulsions represented forced ousters on an industrial scale, without precedent in Europe since the end of World War II.

Many questions about how and why the mass expulsions were ordered by Milosevic remain unanswered, although the available evidence points to careful planning in advance. "The cities represent a big change," said Ron of Human Rights Watch. "My sense is some decision was taken as the weekend approached to empty the cities. When historians go through the Serbian archives in 20 or 30 years, they will be looking at the memos circulating in Belgrade on the 26th and 27th."

In Prizren that weekend, Yugoslav forces moved from house to house telling families they must go to the border – and on foot. In Pec, whole neighborhoods were forced onto the streets and herded to the city's central square, where trucks and buses awaited them.

In the case of Pristina, the capital of 200,000 people, preparations had been laid days before. Army units first swung west and south to seal the city. Paramilitary and Interior Ministry troops established checkpoints and parked armored vehicles at major intersections. Vehicles owned by foreign humanitarian organizations were smashed with wooden clubs. These tactics succeeded in terrifying the civilian population: Most shops closed, and people stayed indoors. Among the city's middle-class professionals, who had been insulated from most effects of a year of fighting, disbelief quickly turned to horror.

The roundups of civilians began in outlying neighborhoods and continued in the city center, refugees later said. "You could see your Serb neighbor run into the stores and take things," recalled one resident. "There were army and police and crazy civilians yelling and shooting their guns into the air. Then they came with guns and said you have to flee to Turkey." Army forces moved into abandoned homes, the city's hospital and its schools in an apparent effort to evade NATO airstrikes.

Starting on March 29, residents of Pristina were rousted from their homes by police and herded to the city's train station. Within two days, the expulsions were occurring with such speed that a column of residents on foot stretched through the streets for at least three miles, from a central vegetable market to the city limits. Police lined the way, jeering.

As in rural areas, terror was part of the program: Refugees reported scattered executions in Pristina's streets as residents were herded toward the city center.

At the train station, people were packed in cars so tightly that several elderly people did not survive the 40-mile journey to the Macedonian border. Along the route they passed a succession of burning homes. By week's end, thousands of people would make the trip.

Western officials said the mass urban expulsions were meant not only to empty cities of ethnic Albanians but also to provoke a humanitarian crisis that would overwhelm and distract NATO forces stationed on the other side of the border. "They were pointed decisively towards Macedonia, in a very intentional way, like the old Westerns where they used to send a cattle stampede against the Indians," said a NATO official.

As one of the trains was pulling out of Pristina, Ardian Zogu, 26, a medical student, noticed a dead man lying by the side of the railway, his upper torso turned black from an intense fire and his legs being eaten by dogs. "The train slowed down" as it passed the body, Zogu said.

Last Thursday, Milosevic declared through the state media that the military offensive was over, and that "peace has prevailed in Kosovo." It was a spurious claim: Fighting continues in some areas, and some analysts believe that many rebels have withdrawn to Albania to fight another day. Abuses against civilians also persist. Of gravest concern are the whereabouts and circumstances of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced ethnic Albanians trapped in the province when its borders were sealed Thursday.

But in important ways, Belgrade could claim success. For one, the speed of the operation had allowed Yugoslav forces to protect themselves as improving weather gave NATO pilots freer reign over the southern Balkans. Yugoslav troops that days earlier had been surrounding villages and cities were dispersed, making them difficult to attack from the air.

Yugoslav forces were back at work at the borders of Kosovo last week, seeding with mines and artillery pieces the same frontiers across which they had driven hundreds of thousands of people in the preceding days.

In a testament to the thoroughness of the Serbian approach to eradicating ethnic populations, the vast majority of refugees now have little to return to in Kosovo. Their homes are gone. Systematic robbery and looting along the evacuation routes claimed the life savings of many.

And Serbian forces were meticulous about confiscating or destroying any documentary link between the refugees and their homeland, including birth certificates, property titles and identity cards. Some refugees said that they were forced to sign away their "right" to return as the exit price from the province.

U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy for Kosovo matters since last summer and the American who has perhaps worked most closely with Milosevic over that period, compared what the Yugoslav leader has done to the social engineering schemes of the former Cambodian leader Pol Pot.

Trying to find an explanation for Belgrade's actions, a NATO official advanced another comparison. When Serbia first gained control of Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, its military forces killed thousands of ethnic Albanians in a similar village-burning operation that was chronicled by a Russian named Leon Trotsky, who was then writing for a Ukrainian journal.

Trotsky wrote that while some career criminals had joined the Serbian army to loot and pillage, "the Serbs in Old Serbia, in the national endeavor to correct data in the ethnographical statistics that are not quite favorable to them, are engaged simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population."

"This is the same old pattern that's been used three times" in Kosovo, the NATO official said. Serbia is a predominantly conservative republic, obsessed with the past and in reliving its lessons. Looking back on the offensive, the official surmised, the country's leadership could conclude: "It'll buy us 20 to 30 years of peace, and we can continue to dominate the Albanians."

Smith reported from Skopje, Macedonia, Drozdiak from Brussels. Correspondents Daniel Williams and Peter Finn in Albania and staff writers Dana Priest and Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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