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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Monitors Feel Guilt After Abandoning Kosovo

OHRID, Macedonia -- For the 1,400 members of the Kosovo Verification Mission, whose job until recently was to try to keep a lid on the simmering hatreds of Kosovo, these are days of frustration and guilt.

Evacuated from Kosovo on March 20, just before NATO launched its bombers against Yugoslavia and President Slobodan Milosevic unleashed a full-blown terror campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the verifiers can do no more now than sit on the lovely lake shore here, watching the horrors unfold on television.

Many military men in the mission expressed anger and frustration at their inactivity and powerlessness. Some said it was a mistake to pull the entire mission out of Kosovo.

"They should have kept a small core,'' said one senior officer. He pointed out that the United Nations kept a small contingent of peacekeepers in Lebanon and other dangerous places.

"However bad it gets, our job was inside Kosovo,'' he said. Like many of his colleagues, he said NATO ground forces should now go in to halt the Serbian onslaught described by refugees and Western officials.

For many, the frustration was heightened by a sense of guilt over the fates of 1,500 local staff left behind, some of whom may have been killed for having associated with the verification mission.

"We knew it was going to be bad, and I warned our local staff that things would get worse, but I did not think it would be this bad,'' said William Walker, the U.S. diplomat who heads the mission.

Although it was Walker who argued at the time of the evacuation that the monitoring mission had been rendered ineffective by Serbian violations, an aide said he had pushed to delay the withdrawal.

The verifiers were dispatched to Kosovo by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor a cease-fire, part of the agreement reached last October between U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and Milosevic. The mission was evacuated when the agreement collapsed and NATO prepared to start bombing.

But for now, there was nothing for the verifiers, most of them military men seconded by the United States, Europe, Russia and other countries in the 54-member OSCE, to do but admire the lake-side view and its backdrop of snow-dusted mountains. Their bright orange cars stood parked outside the two best hotels on the lake shore.

The verifiers agreed that the cease-fire they were sent to monitor never really took hold. As one British army officer described it, "There never was a cease-fire. We were fighting to keep the lid on, to stop the pot boiling over, while the politicians fiddled around.''

But those four months may have been the calmest months Kosovo has enjoyed in more than a year, despite constant violations of the cease-fire. The OSCE's evacuation from Kosovo on March 20 freed Serbian army and police forces to unleash a terrifying attack on the ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the civilian population.

Walker looks weary these days. Two of his personal guards in the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, have been reported killed, and their deaths may have resulted from their connection with Walker and the verification mission.

Some 20 former employees of the OSCE are missing, according to one of the foreign verifiers who is tracking the situation.

"We are concerned about them. There are worrying reports,'' he said. "One guard we know has been killed.'' That was the son of the human rights lawyer, Bajram Kelmendi, who was abducted and killed along with his father and brother on the first night of the NATO bombing.

His death is not thought to be connected to his work with the OSCE but rather his father's prominence. Yet there are ominous signs that anyone who was connected with the OSCE or other foreigners have been targeted by Serbian paramilitaries.

One of the former OSCE security guards reported that a contact in the Serbian police told him, "If you have any association with the OSCE, you are shot on the spot."