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Conflict in Kosovo

Conflict in Kosovo
On March 5, 1998, after years of peaceful struggle by Kosovo’s political leaders for greater autonomy bore no fruit, the Kosovo Liberation Army launched an armed uprising against Serbian rule in the mainly Muslim Yugoslav province. (Getty Images)
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Updated 27 May 2020

Conflict in Kosovo

Conflict in Kosovo

The plight of the mainly Muslim Albanians drew humanitarian help from the Islamic world


On March 5, 1998, after years of peaceful struggle by Kosovo’s political leaders for greater autonomy bore no fruit, the Kosovo Liberation Army launched an armed uprising against Serbian rule in the mainly Muslim Yugoslav province. It drew a harsh response from Belgrade, which did not discriminate between fighters and civilians and sent a flood of refugees into neighboring Albania, creating a major humanitarian crisis.

NATO began airstrikes on March 24, 1999, against Serbian military targets as a direct response to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign against ethnic Albanian Kosovars. The NATO campaign lasted 11 weeks, causing many civilian deaths and heavy damage to infrastructure.

After Yugoslavia accepted a peace proposal in June 1999, UN Secretary-General Javier Solana ordered the cessation of NATO bombing, followed by the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1244, which permitted international authorities’ presence in Kosovo. The region declared unilateral independence in 2008, a decision that remains contested to this day.

DUBAI: By the standards of most recent conflicts, the Kosovo war from 1998 to 1999 was brief. It began with an armed uprising by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbian rule over the Kosovo region of rump Yugoslavia. President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade responded with overbearing force, spawning a massive refugee crisis and raising the specter of a Bosnia-like slaughter of Kosovar Muslims.

NATO intervened with a prolonged bombing campaign, leading to a peace accord and an end to the fighting. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia amid unprecedented scenes of joy and jubilation.

The US and several EU member countries recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, backed by Russia, did not. Since then Kosovo has been in limbo, a parliamentary democracy with a lower-middle-income economy.

Growing up as a child of the Bosnian war in Sarajevo in the 1990s, the events in nearby Kosovo are etched forever in my mind. I am all too aware of the ancient hatreds that lay beneath. Historically, Kosovo lay at the heart of the Serbian empire, having been the site of the coronations of a number of Serbian kings in the Middle Ages.

Despite gaining a measure of autonomy under the former Yugoslavia in 1974, the province’s mainly Muslim ethnic Albanian population had chafed at the dominance of ethnic Serbs. In the late 1980s, the Kosovars’ leader Ibrahim Rugova initiated a policy of non-violent resistance to the abrogation of the province’s constitutional autonomy by Milosevic.

The president and members of Kosovo’s Serbian minority had long fretted that ethnic Albanians were in demographic and political control of a region that held deep significance for Orthodox Christian Serbs. During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, and even after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kosovars began to be viewed with suspicion by Serb nationalists.

Key Dates

  • 1

    Kosovo conflict begins with armed uprising by KLA.

    Timeline Image March 5, 1998

  • 2

    NATO launches campaign of airstrikes against Serbia.

    Timeline Image March 24, 1999

  • 3

    Cessation of NATO airstrikes ordered 11 weeks after they began.

  • 4

    Yugoslavia ceases to exist, renamed State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (latter becomes independent on May 21, 2006).

    Timeline Image Feb. 4, 2003

  • 5

    Kosovo declares independence from Serbia in contested move.

    Timeline Image Feb. 17, 2008

Popular support swung in favor of ethnic Albanian radicals who were convinced their demands for autonomy could not be secured through Rugova’s peaceful methods. In 1996, the KLA emerged on the scene with sporadic attacks on Serbian police and politicians, a campaign that grew in intensity over the next two years.

The heavy-handed tactics of the Serbian police, paramilitary groups and the army triggered a massive refugee crisis, which drew the attention of the international media and community. An informal coalition of the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Russia, known as the Contact Group, demanded an immediate cease-fire, among other things.

The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, kept their focus on organizing humanitarian assistance and seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict

Emina Osmandzikovic

The UN Security Council condemned what it called the excessive use of force and imposed an arms embargo, but the steps failed to halt the violence. On March 24, NATO began a campaign of airstrikes against Serbian military targets. In response, Serbian forces drove hundreds of thousands of Kosovars into Albania, Macedonia (now North Macedonia) and Montenegro.

While the wartime suffering of the Kosovars elicited sympathy and support from the Islamic world, some leaders criticized NATO for sidestepping the UN and labeling the campaign a “humanitarian war.”

The legitimacy of the unilateral decision to launch airstrikes was questionable under international law. But then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan supported the intervention on principle, saying: “There are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.” 

Arab countries such as Libya and Iraq, which had close relations with Yugoslavia at the time, predictably insisted on a political solution. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, kept their focus on organizing humanitarian assistance and seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Saudi Arabia sent two relief planes with more than 120 tons of tents, dates, blankets and carpets, according to official statements.

A page from the the Arab News archive showing the news on March 6, 1998.

A Saudi C-130 Hercules relief plane flew aid daily from either Jeddah or Riyadh to Albania’s capital Tirana, where Saudi Embassy and air force personnel unloaded the contents. Besides a field hospital in Tirana, which opened on May 24, 1999, the Kingdom set up 10 more health centers across Albania and Macedonia.

A Saudi “telethon” raised almost $19 million on April 16, 1999. The Jeddah-based Islamic Relief Organization, which helped organize it, said it sent $12 million in humanitarian aid. A separate Kuwait TV initiative raised $7 million in one day, with Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah personally donating $1 million.

UAE organizations set up one of the largest relief camps, where roughly 10,000 Kosovar refugees received meals and access to basic amenities, and a fully equipped field hospital. The Red Crescent set up refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania.

The NATO bombing campaign lasted 11 weeks and eventually expanded to Belgrade, causing heavy damage to the city’s infrastructure and the inadvertent deaths of many civilians. In June 1999, the Yugoslav government accepted a peace proposal mediated jointly by Russia and Finland.

NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace accord outlining a troop withdrawal and the return of nearly 1 million refugees and 500,000 internally displaced Kosovars. Most ethnic Serbs left the region. NATO’s humanitarian military intervention saved the lives of thousands of innocent Kosovars.

  • Emina Osmandzikovic, who writes about refugee issues for Arab News, grew up in Sarajevo in the 1990s during the Bosnian war. Twitter: @eminaosmnandzik