GRAZ, AUSTRIA – On Thursday, judges at The Hague sentenced former top Serbian officials to prison for committing war crimes during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Although Serbia's former president was acquitted, the conviction of five senior Serb officials should put to rest any questions as to why 715,000 Kosovo Albanians fled their homes during the war: It was the result of a campaign of terror coordinated by Serbian officials, according to the ruling.
Soon after NATO began a bombing campaign on March 24, 1999, Kosovo was overrun by masked thugs, who robbed, raped, and killed ethnic Albanians. Thousands attempted to cross the borders with Montenegro and Macedonia, only to have their vehicles, passports, and identity cards taken by Serb border guards to prevent their return.
The Hague's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sentenced five senior Serbian officials to a total of 96 years in prison for masterminding the campaign. The judges said, however, that the guilty men were unable to foresee that the specific atrocities that took place, such as murder or rape, would result from their scheme. Serbia's president at the time, Milan Milutinovic, was acquitted of charges.
The defense had argued that the Albanians fled to avoid NATO bombs, or as part of an evacuation organized by the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was fighting a guerrilla war to gain independence from Belgrade.