Murder of a mediator fanned flames of genocide The Sunday Times, April 4 1999 The life and death of Bogoljug Staletovic went largely unnoticed amid the broader calamities of the Kosovo crisis last week. Yet the ambush that killed a popular Serbian police commander a month ago may turn out to have been one of the key turning points in a complicated regional ethnic conflict that has suddenly exploded into a full-scale Balkan tragedy. His is the story of a 31-year-old Serb whose even-handed approach in the southern Kosovo town of Kachanik had earned him admirers among all the local ethnic groups. According to Macedonian sources in Skopje, Staletovic regarded himself as a friend of prominent Albanians in Kachanik and would often visit their homes. The only big town on the Kosovo highway between Skopje and Pristina, Kachanik was well known to passing Macedonian businessmen, one of whom, a mechanical engineer, commuted to work in the town. "When the peace talks were going on, both sides, Serbs and Albanians, were afraid of what the other might do in Kachanik," the engineer said last week. "Staletovic was trying to persuade his friends in both groups not to get angry with each other. Nobody wanted trouble. This part of Kosovo always had a peaceful life." Yet on Sunday, February 28, a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) unit ambushed the chief as he visited a police station in the nearby village of Gajre. The Albanians opened up with mortars, rocket-launchers and machine guns. Staletovic was killed instantly; four of his men were seriously wounded. The chief was buried in his home village of Berezovce two days later, wearing his blue camouflage uniform. A funeral procession was followed by 7,000 mourners. "Albanians also felt sorry he died," said the Macedonian engineer. Refugees who later arrived from the region confirmed that their trouble with the police had started the day Staletovic died. Leaders of the Serbian minority party in Macedonia last week claimed that for weeks before the final breakdown of the Rambouillet peace process, KLA leaders had embarked on a calculated cam paign of assassination and assaults on police in the hope of provoking a Serbian reaction that would hasten Nato intervention in Kosovo. Serbian leaders in Belgrade also complain that the West has chosen to overlook the provocative actions of an Albanian guerrilla army whose tactics seem closer to terrorist outfits than to orthodox military units. Between February 25 and the day Nato's bombing started on March 24, the Yugoslavian foreign ministry reported 71 KLA attacks on Serbian policemen or other police targets. While few of the attacks could be independently confirmed, the Serbs are furious that KLA claims of Serbian atrocities are being seized upon by Nato spokesmen while the KLA's earlier campaign of alleged "terrorist provocation" has been conveniently ignored. At the Skopje offices of the Serbian Democratic party last week, Malasa Bozovic, the party's general secretary, mourned what he described as a "loss of reason" in the Nato alliance, particularly in Britain and France, which had counted Serbia as an ally in the first world war fight against Germany. "We are very sorry the English have swallowed the American propaganda," Bozovic said. "In Skopje there are English and French cemeteries from the time we fought together on the Salonika front (1915-18). Now you are dropping bombs on Serbia. I think in the English cemetery your soldiers must be turning in their graves." There is no sign of disturbance at the English war graves behind the Orthodox Church of St Michael, but the gates of the French war cemetery have been defaced with the words "Jack Chirack" (sic) and a swastika. It now seems clear from the scale of the Kosovo exodus that not even Staletovic's diplomatic skills could have saved the residents of Kachanik from expulsion to Macedonia. Yet questions seem certain to be asked about the extent to which the KLA's reckless campaign of assassination and assault provoked Serbian forces into seeking bloody revenge. By the time Nato's air campaign started, many Serbian units had been goaded into all-consuming hatred of Albanians. As for Staletovic's patient construction of communal harmony in Kachanik, refugees fleeing the town last week reported that Serbian units were targeting any Albanian men who looked the right age to be KLA fighters. There were reports of corpses in the street and of a group of 100 men being marched into the local police station. They have apparently not been seen since. What exactly was the KLA up to when it started attacking police units, knowing Serbian forces would retaliate, almost certainly against civilians? In Skopje last week, Balkan conspiracy theorists were in overdrive. The KLA knew it could never win control of Kosovo without Nato military intervention and wanted to sabotage any peace deal, said some sources. The more it could provoke Serbian forces into vicious retaliation against civilians, the sooner Nato bombs would begin to fall. The greater the refugee exodus, the better the chance that Nato ground troops would invade to create an Albanian homeland - to be run by the KLA. None of this came as much consolation to Slobodanka Staletovic, the murdered police commander's mother. She wept over her son's coffin last month, and has watched all his work come undone.Back to texts' page
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