In 1996, Kosovo was a province of the Federation of Yugoslavia
(which now only consisted of the countries of Serbia and Montenegro after the break away of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990`s). Although the majority of the population were Albanian, there was a Serb minority in the province and the Serbian government retained strict control over Kosovo, resisting Kosovan Albanian demands for self-government or independence.
Violence broke out between the Serbian forces of President Milosovic and an hitherto relatively unknown Kosovan-Albanian resistance group calling itself the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). In retaliation for KLA attacks, Serbian forces burned crops and villages in KLA areas, causing thousands of Kosovan Albanian refugees to flee their homes. Other countries became increasingly concerned that the developing war in Kosovo would get worse and, that if it was not ended, President Milosovic would ethnically cleanse Kosovo of all Albanians. It had only been a few years since Britain and the USA stood by while atrocities occurred during the Bosnian War (1993-5) and the genocide in Rwanda (1993). New political leaders, such as the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were prepared to take military action to prevent further atrocities and if necessary to attack Serbia, even though Serbia had not invaded another country or Britain itself.
On 15th January 1999, Serb forces shot dead forty-five Albanian men and boys in retaliation for KLA attacks. In response, the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched a bombing campaign against Serbian targets in the Serbian capital Belgrade.
RAF Tournado aircraft took part but hit none of their targets on the first evening. To begin with NATO had only planned for a short bombing campaign, expecting Milosovic to give in. NATO was prepared for an increase of around 200,000 more refugees as a result of the campaign. Instead Milosovic, convinced of continued support from his ally Russia, escalated ethnic cleansing. Within a month of the bombing campaign there were approximately 850,000 refugees outside Kosovo and 200,000 inside the province. Much of the NATO bombing continued to be inaccurate, with NATO pilots sometimes fooled by decoys or dummy weapons and tanks set up by the Serbs.
On 14th April 1999, American jets fired on a column of Albanian refugees killing seventy people, having mistaken them for a convoy of military trucks.
On 7th May, NATO bombed the Chinese embassy.
On April 23rd, NATO killed sixteen people killed in a strike on the Serbian television headquarters in Belgrade, prompting the Serbian government to accuse NATO of a war crime.
The ineffectiveness of the bombing compaign, particularly in its lack of effect on Milosovic, prompted NATO leaders to discuss plans to send in ground troops. Tony Blair argued strongly that this was the only way to stop the atrocities although the American president, Bill Clinton was very reluctant to agree (because of the negative public reaction to American deaths in the Vietnam War in the 1960`s and 1970`s and, in Somalia in 1993). The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin was in poor health and wanted a swift end to the war. He gave support to a diplomatic plan for Serb troops to withdraw from Kosovo and for a NATO force to supervise the return of refugees. Milosovic could not defy NATO without Russian support. On 9th June, he agreed to the diplomatic plan.
The NATO bombing campaign ceased on June 10th. Over 720 NATO aircraft flew almost 36,000 sorties. NATO claimed it destroyed some 120 Serbian tanks, 220 armoured personnel carriers and 450 artillery and mortar pieces. According to a journalist who claimed to have seen
a secret US report, only 14 tanks, 19 armoured personnel carriers and 20 artillery pieces were destroyed.
Approximately five-hundred Serbian soldiers and police were killed. According to NATO about fifteen-hundred civilians were killed while the Serbians put that at two thousand. There were no British casualties. Two American pilots were killed in a helicopter crash.
Despite the relative inaccuracy of the bombing campaign itself, it contributed to forcing Milosovic to withdraw from Kosovo and helped to bring an end to atrocities against Albanians (although NATO did nothing for the over 200,000 Serbian refugees forced from Kosovo after the war). It gave confidence to Tony Blair and other world leaders that military action could and should be used to intervene in conflicts to stop or prevent a humanitarian crisis. Tony Blair told Albanians chanting ‘Tony,Tony’: “We fought in this conflict for a cause and that cause was justice. We fought for an end to ethnic cleansing. We fought for peace and security for all people in Kosovo.”
Blair developed a belief that the British Armed Forces should be used (in partnership with Britain`s allies) in an active way to tackle problems or threats in the world. This meant that after Kosovo, Blair was prepared to send British troops to help stop a civil war in Sierra Leone (Africa) in 2000, support the Americans with the invasion of Iraq (2003), and fight the Taliban rebels in Afghanistan (2006 onwards).
In Kosovo, British forces continued to contribute to international efforts to bring peace and stability to the territory.