“Kosovo: the untold story” – The Observer, July 1999

The report below is interesting for two reasons: the first, that it gives details of a secret plan – Operation Bravo Minus – to drive Milosevic from power.  The second, that many of the other claims it makes are false or  misleading.  We have added comments [in red]. 


The Observer 18 July 1999

Kosovo: the untold story

When Slobodan Milosevic’s troops began slaughtering ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the West feared a repeat of Hitler’s Holocaust. Nato bombed his forces. Then, on 12 June, the Serb dictator unexpectedly admitted defeat.  [The West’s fears were fanned by completely unsubstantiated media claims of upto 500,000 murdered.  In fact there were fewer than 4,000 casualties on all sides and more than 50% of those were the result of NATO bombing. Note the obligatory reference to the Holocaust here in the introduction.]

Here, for the first time, The Observer can reveal secret details of Operation Bravo Minus – the daring allied plan to drive Milosevic from power – and how a spy leaked details to Belgrade 

Additional reporting by Chris Bird in Pristina, John Henley in Paris and John Hooper in Rome 

Peter Beaumont and Patrick Wintour

Sun 18 Jul 1999 17.28 BST

Deep below the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, past two red, steel-reinforced doors, two computerised glass checkpoints and surveillance cameras lies the Crisis Management Centre: ‘The Bunker.’ Reconstructed on the orders of Lady Thatcher in 1979, it is an air-pressurised network of low-ceilinged corridors leading to a large and dimly lit room. At its centre is a broad ash table capable of seating 18.

The Bunker is serviced by one of the most sophisticated communications centres in the western world, including a video conference screen capable of simultaneously linking the crisis centre to Nato Headquarters, Permanent Joint Headquarters at High Northwood, RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe and Army Command at Wilton. Originally built to control operations in the event of a Russian nuclear attack, the Bunker became from 23 March the headquarters for an entirely new kind of war – a ‘humanitarian war’ designed to protect refugees. And each morning at 8.30, Britain’s most senior Cabinet Ministers, defence staff, intelligence officers and diplomats would gather to discuss its prosecution, the cohesion of the Nato alliance, the fate of the refugees and the bombing schedule.  [After the creation of The Hague Tribunal, ‘Humanitarian war’ quickly became a favourite ploy of the powerful states, no matter that their interventions invariably made matters worse, not better.]

It was around this table in April that they discussed, with increasing fervour, a plan first drawn up in June 1998 by officers from Nato’s planning cell who had been sent to the Yugoslav borders to look at the routes into Serbia’s southern province, Kosovo. On the list of military options it was described as Bravo Minus. It was the secret plan for an opposed ground invasion of Kosovo, involving more than 170,000 troops, including 50,000 British soldiers. In effect, it would involve the entire British Army.  [If true, this would be clear evidence of criminal duplicity on the part of NATO, in breach of its own Charter, in breach of the UN Charter and in breach of international law.]

The massacre that forced the West to act

Four months earlier, after a long period of confused and bumbling diplomacy, the West had been forced into a concerted response to the Kosovo crisis by shocking events in a village above the town of Stimlje. It was called Racak.

The first monitors and journalists who walked into Racak, 18 miles south of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, on Saturday 16 January had feared what they might find. And what lay there, spread out before them, was an unspeakably awful tableau: the only sound, the quiet moaning of men and women behind the stone walls of their homes. Chris Bird of The Observer was one of the first on the scene. [There had been a substantial engagement between Serbian police and KLA fighters on the previous day.  This was witnessed by UN monitors and the media, who were there until late in the evening.  No abuses had been detected.]

In the first house he found the body of 18-year-old Hanushune Mehmeti, shot as she had tried to protect her brother. In the next was 58-year-old Bajram Shunumehmeti, his arms, frozen with rigor mortis, raised in front of him in supplication. He had been shot in the head.

In the next house he found four bodies laid out on the floor. The eldest, 58-year-old Riza Beqiri, lay next to the wall, a stiff white hand still clutching his walking stick. His son Zenel Beqiri lay near the darkened doorframe.  [As in so many instances, these are uncorroborated accounts from villagers in KLA territory. Indicative, maybe; evidence, no.]

But it was above the village, up a steep hill slippery with ice, that the most terrible sights had been saved until last. The body of a middle-aged man, his trousers stiff with frost, lay on the path where he had fallen, blasted in the head. A few yards further up was the body of an elderly man. Part of his head had been shot away. Round a corner they were confronted by a scene that would become infamous when images of it sped round the globe: the tumbled bodies of 19 men, all in civilian clothes, all shot at close range, their bodies riddled with bullets.

What had happened in Racak became clear during the next few hours and days. According to survivors, the first Serb troops, led by the men of the Specialna Antiterroristicka Jedinica (SAJ), arrived by car and armoured personnel carrier, supported by artillery of the Yugoslav army. Its tanks motored up the narrow road, tracks clattering on tarmac, firing directly into houses. Mortar rounds lobbed from the nearby hills smashed roofs and crashed through walls.

There it might have stopped – another clumsy attack by Serb forces against a village held by the Kosovo Liberation Army – but for the action of the men from the SAJ in their black uniforms and balaclavas, accompanied by the Ministry of Interior police in their blue boiler suits, and the local paramilitaries, as they moved on foot through the village. As the forces entered the village searching for ‘terrorists’ from the Kosovo Liberation Army they tortured, humiliated and then murdered any men they found.

[As ever, the final sentence above repeats uncritically without qualification the unsubstantiated claims made by local people].

A German diplomat, Berend Borchadt, was one of the first to visit the scene. He had been sent to prepare a report for the [US-created and run] Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose 1,800 unarmed monitors had been deployed in Kosovo the previous autumn to police a US-brokered ceasefire between Serb forces and the ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The events that led to the massacre in Racak began – as Borchadt spelt out in his report – with a ‘well prepared ambush’ by KLA fighters on 8 January that left four Serbian policemen dead. Borchadt conceded that the attack had not been a one-off, despite the fact that a ceasefire, negotiated in October by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and backed by the threat of air strikes by 400 Nato bombers, was allegedly in force.

In October, Holbrooke had persuaded President Slobodan Milosevic to halt a furious campaign against the KLA and ethnic Albanian civilians which had been raging since the summer and had killed more than 2,000, displacing 200,000 more. [This ‘furious campaign’ was in response to an attempt by the KLA army, which invaded Kosovo from Albania (where it had been armed and trained by the US, UK, Germany and France) with the aim of taking by force control of the whole of Kosovo, thereby establishing independence by conquest.  At one point the KLA had seized most of the province before the Serbs counter-attacked and regained much of the lost territory.  There were certainly casualties in this fighting, on both sides.  The displacement of Kosovo Albanians did not start until NATO bombing commenced on 24 March 1999.  It was not perpetrated by the Serb forces but by NATO’s bombs and the directions given to the Albanian population by the KLA].

But in January, with the monitoring mission on the ground, and with diminished Serb forces – in theory at least – back in their barracks, the ethnic Albanian guerrillas had once again become emboldened. Wary of head-on confrontation with the Serbs, which had proved a disaster for the nascent guerrilla army and the population that supported it in the summer of 1998, the KLA had shifted to a policy of hit-and-run attacks. [As ever, the KLA paid scant attention to the agreements they had made with the international community, re-occupying land that had been won back by the Serbs without a hint of protest from the international community.]

The truth was that on the Serb side, too, Holbrooke’s ceasefire had become a sham. Actions (of) Milosevic’s Interior Ministry Police – the infamous MUP – continued. Columns of police and Yugoslav army armour used the pretence of training exercises to leave barracks and to harass villages in the countryside. Assassinations, murder and kidnapping continued on both sides. And in response to the KLA’s January attack Yugoslav forces under General Sreten Lukic, head of the Ministry of Interior forces in Kosovo, planned a revenge attack on Racak, where they believed some of the killers lived. They would crush it in a vice with simultaneous assaults from three sides.  [By many accounts, Serbian forces had shown considerable restraint in the face of KLA provocations designed to increase pressure on the international community to intervene on their behalf.]

According to Borchadt, the Yugoslav army had moved artillery, tanks and other armoured vehicles into the area early in the week, so that by Thursday 14 January skirmishing had begun in earnest. By the Friday morning – the day of the massacre – the situation had deteriorated seriously. Through their binoculars, concerned monitors who had been blocked by the Serbs from reaching the area to attempt to negotiate a halt to the fighting could see houses burning in the distant village. They could also see tanks and armoured vehicles firing directly into the houses. Most worrying of all, residents of Racak who had fled the fighting described men being rounded up and 20 of them being ‘led away’.  [The area around Racak was a KLA stronghold.  The story about the 20 men is just that – typical, unsubstantiated propaganda.]

The monitors were determined to try to reach the village the next morning. When William Walker, the US diplomat at the head of the monitoring mission, finally succeeded in gaining access to the quiet village at 1pm on Saturday 16 January, it was again in KLA hands. The rebels led them to the bodies in and around the village. Walker had little doubt about what had happened: ‘As a layman,’ he said, ‘it looks to me like executions.’ He was also categorical about whom he blamed: Milosevic’s forces. [William Walker was a notorious diplomatic ‘fixer’ – not   an appropriate person to head an independent monitoring mission. He entered Racak and within a matter of 3 hours was declaring to the world that a massacre had taken place and the Serbs were responsible.  He did so despite the fact that he himself had no scene of crime or forensic experience, and nor did any others in his group.  A Serbian forensic team went in and reached very different conclusions – in particular that all but one of the dead people had been shot from long range (as in a battle) and that the bodies had clearly been moved, redressed in civilian clothes and carefully arranged to suggest foul play.  An independent international forensic team led by Helena Ranta was brought in to report.  A press conference was called for her to deliver their conclusions, but was delayed for 3 hours during which, it was learned later, she was brought under intense pressure to support Walker’s claims.  Eventually she emerged to give the press a non-committal report.  Later she and her team broadly endorsed the report of the Serbian team.] 

Inertia in Washington: how the peace was lost

The massacre that lit the touchpaper of the war with Yugoslavia was, by the standard of recent conflicts, a small one. It was no My Lai with its 500 Vietnamese dead. By the benchmark of the Rwandan civil war, it would barely rate a mention.

But Racak would begin the process that led to Europe’s most serious bombing since World War Two, and to the preparations for a land invasion that would finally – when Milosevic got wind of it – lead to his capitulation. It was the moment, as Ministers and officials would reiterate, that the ‘scales fell from our eyes’.

[Milosevic capitulated because of the immense infrastructure damage and loss of life inflicted by the massive NATO bombing.  Racak was what it was what it was always intended to be – a pretext to allow the US to take charge by summarily calling the Rambouillet conference.  The US allowed discussions to drift for a short time, then Madeleine Albright arrived to strong-arm the Kosovo Albanians into accepting her proposed terms, whilst – as her spokesman James Rubin openly boasted – ‘raising the bar’ against the Serbs so high that they would find it impossible to accept.  This was the green light for NATO to bomb.]

Nato’s war, its first in its 50-year history, would transform the international landscape. A victorious Nato would ultimately emerge as a strengthened and invigorated alliance. America’s reputation as the ‘world’s policeman’ would be weakened by a catalogue of hesitations and indecision, while Tony Blair, by contrast, would emerge as a figure of international authority who would be remembered for keeping a tough line against Milosevic’s excesses.  [Something of an overstatement.  The NATO bombing sent shockwaves around the world.  Even those supportive of humanitarian intervention were dismayed to see scenes such as the bombing of the RadioTelevision Serbia building in Belgrade in which 17 civilians died.  NATO may have given itself a new purpose, but its brutal bombing campaign left a very nasty taste.  Perceptions of Tony Blair as a ‘figure of international authority’ quickly faded as his claims of war crimes and genocide were discredited.]

But despite the victory, the same process would expose the faultlines in international diplomacy: failures of political imagination and military intelligence, the sidelining of the UN Security Council, and – perhaps most serious of all – a fatal underestimation of Milosevic’s capacity for evil. Through it all, the memory of Racak would be twisted like a bloody thread.  [Phrases like ‘Milosevic’s capacity for evil’ crept in to many media reports.  But few  attempted to provide evidence to define and support their charges and none was ever forthcoming.]

In Washington the first news of the Racak massacre presented a grotesque headache. The ghastly images put the administration of President Bill Clinton under pressure ‘to do something’. But for a President still mired in the embarrasment and political paralysis of his impeachment for the Monica Lewinsky affair there was a wider concern.

Typically for this administration, the issue that gripped Clinton’s officials in the days after Racak was not a humanitarian one, but one of presentation: the thought that a looming crisis in Kosovo might overshadow the summit in Washington on 22 April to celebrate Nato’s fiftieth anniversary.

But Racak was also an embarrassment to Clinton and his advisers for another reason: it was the culmination of a period of fumbled foreign policy decisions by an administration that had seemed to sleepwalk through the previous 12 months of the Kosovo crisis. Racak cast that period in a sharp light.

The assessment by US intelligence officials and diplomats at the time of the massacre was optimistic. The Holbrooke-negotiated ceasefire, secured under the threat of Nato air raids following two earlier Serb massacres in September, had finally given the impression that the international community had lost patience with Milosevic and had the will to act.

[What massacre?  No mass graves were ever discovered in Kosovo. Even NATO spokesman Jamie Shea acknowledged in 2001 that there had been no genocide in Kosovo.]

Despite clear evidence of serious violations by both sides, US officials had been blithely predicting that there would be no resumption of fighting until the spring or early summer. When US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright heard of the Racak massacre, she commented bitterly: ‘So. Spring has come early.’

[This is nonsense.  Walker had been deployed by Madeleine Albright to find a pretext for US intervention.  Her “Spring has come early” comment reflected her great pleasure that Walker had discharged his task so speedily.  Walker was clearly embarrassed by this and regularly denied he had called Albright direct with the good news from the trench at Racak.  Richard Holbrooke, however, confirmed several times that this call had taken place.]

But if the administration had its eye off the ball during the immediate build-up to Racak, that was little different from its attitude in the preceding months. As US officials later conceded, at times it seemed that the administration was only paying ‘sporadic’ attention. And what attention the US and the rest of the international community did pay to Kosovo was full of contradictions that would paradoxically increase the risk of Nato joining the conflict.

It was not only in Washington that officials were concerned about how seriously Clinton was grappling with the crisis. It was also noted in the European capitals, including London, which had been struggling, without success, to reach a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo since the winter of 1997. ‘How focused was the administration?’ asked a British official last week. ‘I think it was some time before they really engaged with the problem.’

Among those who now accept that important opportunities for peace were missed is Richard Holbrooke, the man twice handed the mission of talking Milosevic down from his ledge over Kosovo – in October, and on the eve of the Nato bombing.

‘We made numerous mistakes,’ Holbrooke admitted in June. Most serious, he intimates, was the lack of support from his own government in his negotiations to end the conflict in October. It declined to endorse his efforts to place armed peacekeepers in the province.

‘I was not able to negotiate armed international security forces in Kosovo in October because it was not possible to do that under the instructions I was given . . . ‘ he said. ‘I have stated repeatedly that Albanians and Serbs would not be able to live together in peace in Kosovo until they’d had a period of time with international security forces to keep them from tearing each other to pieces.’

‘We were prepared to put in ground forces in October,’ confirmed a British official. ‘But Holbrooke did not have US backing.’ And Holbrooke was not alone in believing serious opportunities for peace were missed last summer and last autumn. There are those who believe mistakes were made at almost every turn.  [Throughout the Balkan crisis different parts of the US administration were pursuing different policies on Yugoslavia.  It seems President Clinton was disinclined to fan the conflicts.  But when Madeleine Albright presented him with the opportunity to bring the Kosovo war to a decisive end without the use of ground troops, he chose to follow this course.]

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told The Observer: ‘There was for months and months an international policy of mounting pressure on Belgrade, with a mix of carrot and stick. If you carry on the repression in Kosovo the sanctions will get tougher. If you stop, you can lead your country out of isolation. We were all in agreement on this, even if there were complicated discussions on the balance between the proportion of carrot to stick.’

But as a senior US diplomat who helped administer the policy admitted last month: ‘At every point, the match between what we were ready to do and what was required to stop the conflict was one notch out of sync.’

The patriotic gangster and a 10-year build-up

The world had recognised the simmering risk of conflict for over a decade, ever since a former Communist apparatchik named Slobodan Milosevic launched himself to power on a surge of Serb nationalist sentiment by vowing to ‘protect’ the 200,000 Serb minority population in a Serb-claimed Holy Land where they were outnumbered by ethnic Albanians by nine to one.

[Damnation by cheap slur. Milosevic, a former merchant banker, was democratically elected with a platform based around an embracement of capitalism.  The speech Milosevic made in Kosovo in 1999 was not a nationalist rant – quite the reverse.  Milosevic spoke of multiculturalism as a great benefit to Yugoslavia.  His undertaking to the Kosovo Serbs was that he would take action to ensure that they were not continually brutalised by the Albanian majority.] 

Milosevic was as good as his word, although what he meant by protection was political gangsterism. In 1989 he moved quickly to abolish Kosovo’s autonomous status. New laws that followed made it illegal for ethnic Albanians to buy or sell property without official permission and, in 1991, tens of thousands of Albanians were sacked from their jobs in hospitals and universities and state owned firms. In schools and colleges a new curriculum was introduced in Serbo-Croat, using Serb versions of history. Arbritary arrest and police violence by Serbian police against ethnic Albanians became commonplace.

[This is also a very selective and unfair assessment.  The population of Kosovo was transformed during the 20th century  by the arrival of many thousands of immigrants from Albania.  This happened partly because life in Albania was generally very hard and the border with Kosovo was easy to cross illegally.  It was also the deliberate policy of the Tito regime, as a means of diminishing the power of Serbia, to open the border from time to time and invite immigrants to come in.  Tito also passed laws after WW2 to prevent Kosovo Serbs who had fought against Germany from returning to their homeland.  With Kosovo Albanians recording the highest birth rate in Europe, all these factors combined to turn a Serbian majority in the early 1900s into a substantial Albanian majority by the end of the century.  All this encouraged Albania to develop ambitions for a GreaterAlbania including Kosovo.  Finally, in the final years of the 20th century, the appalling repressive regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania generated widespread organised crime in the country.  Many of these criminals moved to Kosovo where they could operate much more freely.  They brought new ruthlessness and barbarity to relations between Serbs and Albanians.}

Through all this, however, the Kosovans appeared content – at least at first – to be led by the pacifist figure of Ibrahim Rugova who, in unofficial elections, had claimed the support of the overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians who had also, in a secret ballot in 1991, voted for a Republic of Kosovo with Rugova at the head: an entity that only neighbouring Albania was prepared to recognise.

But after the violent secession of first Slovenia and then Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s – and the tide of bloodletting that followed – the more militant Kosovans began to question Rugova’s failure to lift the burden of Serbian political oppression and the refusal of the international community to consider its independence. The result was the emergence in 1996 of a shadowy terrorist organisation – the Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves, the Kosovo Liberation Army – which began a series of murderous attacks on Serbs. And by early 1998 the KLA was growing more confident in its attacks.

[There was no Serbian political oppression.  The small Serbian population in Kosovo had long since become the oppressed minority.  The arrival of the hardest gangsters in Europe only acerbated this, particularly after the gang leaders made huge profits from launching the tidal wave of drug-running and people smuggling that swept through Europe from the 1990s onwards.]

The man initially given the task by the US of sorting out this mess was Robert Gelbard, a wily career diplomat appointed as Clinton’s Special Representative to the Balkans. But America was ambivalent about what was happening in the province. And in the early months of 1998 the uncertainty of the US position was summed up in a series of public statements Gelbard made on the eve of the civil war.

On 23 February, Gelbard was in Belgrade praising Milosevic for his constructive approach to implementing the Dayton peace agreement, promising that sanctions, in place since the war in Bosnia, would be lifted. Later that same day he was in Kosovo’s drab regional capital Pristina announcing that in the view of the US the KLA was ‘without any questions a terrorist group’.

[Gelbard had seen for himself that the official version of what was happening in Kosovo was profoundly wrong.]

It was a gift to Milosevic at a time of extreme tension. For while the KLA unquestionably had been using terrorist tactics, Gelbard’s comments were an open invitation to Serb forces. Four days later they accepted. In a weekend of slaughter, Serb police attacked the villages of Cirez and Likosane, killing 26 civilians and burning their houses. According to Amnesty International ‘it appeared that most or all of the ethnic Albanians had been extrajudicially executed’. Among the victims was Rukje Nebiu from Cirez. Pregnant, there was little question how she had died, she had been shot in the head by a policeman at point-blank range. In the outcry that followed 50,000 Albanians flooded on to the streets of Pristina only to be beaten back by water cannon, tear gas and baton charges. Many blamed Gelbard for encouraging Milosevic. But the US was not alone in its uncertain handling of Kosovo, as British Balkans specialist Richard Caplan would write a few months later in the journal International Affairs. The policies of the international community – to prevent the further fragmentation of the Balkans and keep Milosevic on side – he argued, had ‘had the paradoxical effect of emboldening Belgrade and radicalising the Albanian population, thus compounding the crisis in Kosovo’.

[Gelbard understood that Kosovo had been part of Serbia for  600 years and was the home of the Serbian Orthodox church.  He saw that it  had become a target of Albanian colonisation.  He recognised that Serbia had every right to defend its territory against illegal attack].

By early summer the combative and ambitious Holbrooke was back on the scene. And his long experience of Milosevic had persuaded him he could negotiate and bring him to heel. It was, as many US officials now concede, a tactical mistake. Holbrooke was Clinton’s choice for US ambassador to the UN. Distracted by this, the issue of Kosovo was left with the State Department’s Department of European affairs, where the vicious summer offensive was, in the words of New York Times, ‘noticed but not dramatised’.

[This is nonsense.  Holbrooke had worked closely with Milosevic to bring about the deal to end the Bosnian war reached at the Dayton conference.  Both he and Bill Clinton had publicly praised Milosevic for the part he had played, saying that agreement would not have been possible without him.  Later Holbrooke chose to present things in a very different way, suggesting that Milosevic was a monster.  Holbrooke was a cynical and ruthless operator.]

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, puts it more brutally. She believes the spring and summer of 1998 represented a fundamental failure of the international community. For despite the efforts of her office to draw attention to the growing crisis in March and April 1998, she says no one was paying any attention. ‘That was our worry,’ she told the Observer. ‘That no one was listening to us.’ ‘There were immense delays in facing up to the problem,’ agrees an official at the Palazzo Chigi, the office of Massimo D’Alema, the Italian Prime Minister: ‘particularly on the part of Nato and its European members.’ [‘Human Rights’ were now being championed by powerful interest groups.  It suited western politicians to play to this gallery; it suited the interest groups to extend their power and influence as much as possible.]

Rambouillet: The last throw of the dice

A little way outside Paris lies a former hunting lodge, beside the Foret de Rambouillet, which houses Napoleon’s study and the Queen’s Dairy where Marie Antoinette played milkmaid. It was, as Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini described it in his war diary: ‘A castle full of deep recesses, dark corners and little flights of stairs’.

Racak had presented the international community with two options. The first was to launch military action immediately against Yugoslavia; the other was to talk: and no one was yet ready to press the button. In the US, as one senior official told the New York Times, Clinton was still reluctant to use force. ‘There was a desire to believe that the threat of force was better than the use of force.’ Under the threat of Nato air raids, both parties to the conflict were ordered to Rambouillet to negotiate a political settlement drafted by the smoothly efficient US Ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill, who had spent the summer shuttling between the Serbs and Kosovans.

The hope was that, locked away from distractions, the two sides could be bullied into accepting Hill’s compromise. Kosovo would remain in Yugoslavia – in line with European and US policy endlessly restated – but with substantial autonomy for the ethnic Albanians. The peace would be kept by a Nato force 28,000 strong, and the KLA would be bought off with a fudged promise of a vote on the province’s future status.

But the question that would become most pressing as the talks went on was whether Milosevic was prepared to believe the threat to bomb if he did not sign up. ‘There was a dysfunction of imagination on both sides,’ admitted a senior Foreign Office official last week. ‘It was very difficult for us later to imagine the scale of killing and ethnic cleansing Milosevic was capable of. But on Milosevic’s side he failed to imagine how serious we were about bombing.’ The key issue as the Albanian and Serb delegations danced their dangerous waltz became – as in the autumn – the credibility of Nato’s threats. And it was on this issue that Milosevic was to make his most serious misjudgment. [Note the routine smear “It was very difficult for us later to imagine the scale of killing and ethnic cleansing Milosevic was capable of”.  As later became clear, nothing of this kind had happened.  The Foreign Office’s ‘dysfunction of imagination’ was that it had entirely failed to understand what was happening in Kosovo.]

For even in calling the talks, the US and its European allies had reached a turning point: a sombre realisation that if Milosevic would not sign up and cease the killing, then Nato would really have to go to war. [There was nothing sombre about this realisation.  It was precisely what they had intended.]

The planning was already in train as Air Marshal Sir John Day, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, recalls. ‘Originally we had conceived of two options for an air campaign. There were limited and phased campaigns. By limited we originally envisaged using no manned aircraft, but cruise missiles from air and sea instead. But that had evolved into a phased campaign which even in its first phase required manned aircraft.’

Despite the new sense of purpose, Rambouillet was, as many officials now privately agree, deeply flawed. Unlike Dayton, where the Americans bullied him in person into agreement, Milosevic refused to attend, citing fears that he had been secretly indicted with war crimes. Instead, a delegation of nonentities, led intermittently by Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, was forced to call Belgrade daily for instructions.

[As noted above, Milosevic was not ‘bullied’ to accept the Dayton agreement.  Both Clinton and Holbrooke paid tribute to his constructive assistance.  Of course it suited them later to forget this and represent him as a war criminal at every opportunity.  The had to do this to sustain the false version of history that they and The Hague Tribunal had fabricated.]

The Albanian party, led by 29-year-old Hashim Thaci – the KLA’s ‘Commander Snake’ – was little better and riven between the fighters of the KLA, and Ibrahim Rugova’s pacifists.

The conference was to be chaired by Robin Cook and Hubert Vedrine. But even as the talks got under way US officials were publicly pouring cold water on the project, briefing American journalists that while they thought: ‘Cook was a good guy,’ they did not believe ‘he could deliver Milosevic’. [And of course they didn’t want Cook to ‘deliver’ Milosevic, they wanted regime change in Serbia.]

These, however, were minor difficulties compared with the biggest flaw of the conference. For as was plainly obvious in Belgrade, it was the US that had the firepower to ensure the bombing happened. And while the US took a back seat – as it did until the belated arrival of Madeleine Albright sporting a jaunty stetson – the absent Milosevic was not going to play along.

Rambouillet was, as Tom Phillips the head of the British delegation describes it, a sometimes surreal, but always gruelling process. ‘It was like Last Year at Marienbad with mobile phones,’ he told The Observer last week. ‘There were long corridors and odd moments where you would come from a headbanging meeting with the Serbs to bump into Chris Hill and Veton Surroi (one of the Albanian delegation) going down the stairs in their jogging suits.’  [The progress of the Rambouillet talks went precisely in line with Albright’s strategy: the early discussions presented Europe with the illusion it was calling the shots.  Once it was clear the talks were going nowhere, everyone stood back to allow the world’s great superpower to take charge].

From the beginning it was clear that the Serbs had little intention of negotiating. That did not go unnoticed by the British team, which tried to reinforce the threat of what would happen if the Serbs rejected the peace plan. ‘I had the most brutal conversations with the head of the Yugoslav delegation,’ says Emyr Jones Parry, political director at the Foreign Office and a member of the British delegation who had long experience of dealing with Milosevic and his cronies. He warned Milutinovic in no uncertain terms that Nato intended to bomb. Milutinovic ‘responded with a broad sort of grin.’ [Why would the Serbs be interested in negotiating?  The international community had no authority to intervene in a civil war within Serbia.  The international community had already demonstrated its bias and prejudice against Serbia in a thousand different ways.]

The Americans, meanwhile, were concentrating their efforts on the ethnic Albanians in ways that appeared, to some European delegates, to be deeply unhelpful to the peace efforts. ‘The American priority,’ as a British official put it, ‘was to get to the end with the Serbs as the baddies.’ Dukejin Gorani, an editor attached to the Albanian delegation as translator, agrees there was pressure. ‘Chris Hill urged us to sign the deal, saying if the Serbs refused, the Kosovo problem would now be the international community’s problem.’

And when the climax of the conference came, as Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini noted in his diary, the US was trying to stage-manage the conclusion. ‘It is decided,’ wrote Dini: ‘to put everyone around a table. On one side, the Ministers and Prime Ministers. On the other, the delegations who have to reply one at a time to our questions. A sort of court. The Americans come up with a ploy. ‘Let’s hear from the Serbs first,’ they say, hoping they will be first to say no. It doesn’t turn out that way. The ethnic Albanian Kosovans, questioned first, say that they will not sign the document in that version. The Americans are disappointed. (Christopher) Hill, white-faced, shakes his head.’ To complicate matters, the Serbs indicated that they were happy with the political section of the agreement.

‘It was one of the most cynical acts,’ recalled a British delegate last week. ‘The Serbs never had any intention of going along with it.’ He was proved right a fortnight later when the talks reconvened at the Kleber conference centre in Paris. As the Albanians signed up under heavy US pressure, the Serbs had reversed to their position of rejection of the entire agreement.

[This is wrong.  The Serbs were prepared to make comprises to achieve peace.  It was only when Albright moved the goalposts for the umpteenth time to present Serbia with terms that no sovereign nation could possibly accept that Serbia walked away].

Dini, who disapproved of the American tactics, noted his final warning to Milutinovic in the hall of the Hotel Bristol. ‘I say: ‘We are close to bombing. There is still a margin. Bear it in mind. I beg you.’ Milutinovic replied: ‘You have taken away from us all possibility of negotiating. If, at this point, you want to bomb us, then go ahead.’

[Ironical that, in breach of the most fundamental principle enshrined in the UN Charter, a sovereign nation was being threatened with illegal attack if it refused to bow to an illegal  and wholly unreasonable ultimatum.  A triumph for the New World Order.]

‘The Serbs were still labouring under misapprehension,’ explained a British official last week. ‘They thought five cruise missiles would come floating down the road, and that was it. Even when I spoke to the Yugoslav Minister in London to reiterate the threat, he still had not taken it on board. He said: ‘Two cruise missiles will not make us bow.’

In Downing Street the reality of Serbian dysfunction of imagination was beginning to sink in. ‘I think Rambouillet was the point of no return,’ says Development Secretary Clare Short. ‘I had a conversation with Tony (Blair) after the talks broke up. He said: ‘Milosevic thinks he can get away with it. He is playing a game. He thinks we are unwilling to act. If he thought there was real steel in the threat he wouldn’t get away with it.’

[Blair was his disingenuous self.  He knew full well that terms refused by the Serbs would have been unacceptable to any sovereign nation.  The disgrace was the cynicism of the western powers in putting such terms forward.]

Vedrine is phlegmatic about the conference’s failure. ‘I have no regrets about Rambouillet, only that the Serbs behaved as they did. I think they missed an historic opportunity and it’s a tragedy for them, for everyone, of course for the Kosovans. We were right to try so hard to find a political and diplomatic solution in ’98. Chris Hill’s work, the work of all the others, was good, but at the end of ’98, we realised it wasn’t going to do the job.’

[The Serbs behaved correctly and constitutionally throughout.  It was the western powers that violated the freedoms that were preserved at such cost by the allied victory in WW2.]

Nato, barring a last-minute change of heart by the Serbs, was on the road to war.