Košare 1999: the last resistance of the Yugoslav army in Kosovo

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Between 24 March and 10 June 1999, with the operation called "Allied Force" (but in the US military term it is known as "Noble Anvil" operation) NATO intervened in the "Kosovo War" in support of guerrilla forces Albanian led by the militant organization of the ÇAR (Albanian acronym for "Ushtria Çlirimtare and Kosovës" - "Army for the Liberation of Kosovo") that since February 1998 were carrying out a bloody and without quarter war against the authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia , which used equally brutal methods to repress what they considered a dangerous internal sedition.

Although most Westerners remember the "Kosovo War" mainly through images of NATO air strikes against strategic targets located throughout the territory of Yugoslavia (then formed by Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo), few actually remember that the territory of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo became the scene of a bloody land war fought with no holds barred and atrocities by the KLA and the Belgrade armed forces and police forces.

The clash that most of all symbolizes the desperate situation on the ground in which the contenders were literally "entwined" was the so-called "battle of Košare", an uninterrupted series of fighting lasting 67 days that took place along the border between Kosovo and Albania between April and June 1999 and ended only with the end of the war itself, the 10 June.

At 20 years exactly from those events, and thanks also to the new information that gradually becomes available year after year, it is now possible to trace an overall image of the events that interested the Balkan peninsula and of the men of the two parts that faced each other without exclusion of blows for the control of this almost forgotten corner of Europe.

Because of its strategic position as a "passageway" for men and armaments, the Kosovar-Albanian border had become a hotbed of activity in the aftermath of the Dayton agreements that had ended the "first phase" of the wars of disintegration of the Yugoslavia. Although in fact the ÇÇ existed since the early nineties, it had remained essentially inactive and in a "wait-and-see" position for the entire first part of the decade. The end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and the events of the so-called "Albanian Civil War" of the 1997, however, had the consequence that a large quantity of weapons of all types, from the oldest to the most modern, took the path of Northern Albania arriving in the availability of the ÇK whose leaders decided to take action. Thus, while in February of the 1998 the world suddenly realized that a new war was raging in the Balkan peninsula, the border area had long since become an authentic crawl space.

In its subsequent maneuver against the insurrection, Belgrade decided not only to attack the bastions of Albanian militancy within Kosovo but, with a vigorous containment operation, tightened its grip to reach a complete closure and militarization of the border. After more than a year of uninterrupted operations, on the eve of "Allied Force", the flow of men and weapons in support of the Albanian guerrillas across the border was practically exhausted and guerrilla forces within the province were seriously losing ground.

In light of all this, a decision was taken, shared by both the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance and the Kosovar guerrillas and its sponsors in the Republic of Albania, to implement a military plan that would lead to the break-up of the Yugoslav military and police device along the border to reopen supply lines to the interior of Kosovo.

At the beginning of April 1999, after just one week from the beginning of the aerial bombardments, the forces of the Kosovar guerrillas (which thanks to the mobilization of a large number of ethnic Albanians from all over the world had reached the remarkable figure of 45.000 men) began a series of offensive bets in the Kukës area to identify the best point for the subsequent concentric attack. The choice fell on Košare because, although this location was dominated by a Yugoslav army barracks, its position was considered by the Allies to be absolutely indefensible. At that time, the small barracks was only defended by 110 men of a static defense infantry unit assisted by additional 190 comrades scattered in various advanced positions all around, for a total of no more than 300 infanti for the whole sector. Although this defensive device was defined as rather "tenuous", the Yugoslav forces had set up further backward lines of defense using the tormented orography of the surrounding terrain.

At 3: 00 in the morning of the 9 April 1999, the moment of truth finally arrived when, protected by an artillery barrage both mono and poles tube supplied by the Albanian armed forces, and supported by targeted air raids by NATO forces, the UÇK men launched an attack on the outer perimeter of the Yugoslav defenses. Coordinating the entire operation was General Kudusi Lama, commander of the Albanian division in charge of the defense of Kukës, on the Albanian side of the border. At this juncture he could use a direct line of communication with the American general Wesley Clark, commander-in-chief of the NATO forces, while the tactical initiatives on the ground were entrusted to the local UÇK commanders who personally led their men in battle.

Initially the Yugoslav forces were taken by surprise by the enemy's firepower and, after the second day of fighting, they had to abandon the semi-destroyed Košare barracks which was immediately shown as a trophy to CNN and BBC "embedded" journalists with the guerrillas. . Subsequently, the Albanian fighters tried to assault the second Yugoslav defense line centered around the defensive complex of the Paštrik mountain without obtaining anything.

The first offensive thrust of the ÇKK ended therefore the April 13 with the Albanians who could boast the conquest of the position of Košare but without having opened that indispensable corridor towards the interior of Kosovo that NATO had requested. In the following two months, the area around that small strip of land became the focal point of most of the land-based fighting of the war. Despite the support of the artillery and tanks of the Albanian armed forces and NATO air forces (which came to concentrate in the area the beauty of over 100 aircraft, equal to 10% of the entire force mobilized for "Allied Force") the Kosovar guerrillas (meanwhile become an army in full rule) failed to break the Yugoslav defenses to distribute in depth, indeed, after rejecting all enemy offensive episodes, in May the Yugoslav military even launched counterattacks that they managed to hunt the Albanians from all the territories they earned during their offensive, with the sole exception of the Košare pass and its infamous barracks.

Although at the time the main newspapers were trumpeting the mind-boggling numbers concerning the losses that the Yugoslav military had suffered due to the Allied aerial bombardments, in particular by the B-52 Stratofortress and the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the reality was much more prosaic. Dug into the depths and using the favor of the night and the thick wooded cover to their advantage, the Yugoslavs now managed to disperse now to concentrate their forces according to their tactical needs in a way that completely denies the opponent's dominion of the sky . Not only that, occasionally the Allied aviation became a danger precisely for the Kosovar guerrillas, as when, on 22 in May, the coalition planes mistakenly bombed the positions of the ÇK causing at least 67 deaths among the guerrilla ranks.

Much more dangerous for the Belgrade military was the Albanian artillery whose servants showed a certain ability to "flush out" the adversaries to the shelter of the trenches, however when during the month of May the Yugoslavs managed to move a sufficient number in the operating theater of pieces of their heavy artillery, for the Albanians they were pains. In spite of the domination of the air of the adversary, the forces of Belgrade managed to get even some tanks and other armored vehicles to participate in some counterattacks, which proved decisive in the individual engagements. It appears that the only armored vehicle to be lost by the Yugoslavs during the entire battle was a BOV centered by an anti-tank rocket exploded by the guerrillas, certainly not by Allied aircraft.

The orography of the terrain and the presence of dense vegetation now played in favor now against both sides as both forces relied on us when forced to "play defensively".

It should be noted that, at different times in the battle, the Albanians and Yugoslavs faced each other from distant positions no less than 10 meters! In this context, all the long-range weapons became useless and the contenders had to resort to the “hand-held goddess bomb” of which, even today, the land around Košare returns unexploded specimens in spades.

As for the losses, for a long time the Yugoslav authorities first and Serbs then spoke of the loss of 108 men even if, on careful analysis, it seems that this number refers only to the losses suffered by the garrison of the Košare barracks in the first 5 days of fighting (it is established that only 2 of the 110 soldiers of the original garrison survived the battle). However, considering the number of men involved, the duration of the entire battle and the violence of the fighting, it is possible to hypothesize that the Belgrade armed and police forces used in the area suffered several hundred deaths, up to a maximum of 1000.

On the other hand, the Albanians have always refused to provide figures on their losses, which in any case appear to be between the 5 and the 10 times greater than those of Yugoslavia. A veil of total secrecy regards the use by both forces of mercenaries and foreign volunteers as well as the presence of elements of the special forces and the secret services of the NATO countries in support of the Albanian offensive even if the generalities of at least 1, a Russian volunteer who fell between the Yugoslav and 3 ranks, western volunteers (including 1 from Italy) who fell among the ranks of the Albanians.

On a strategic level, the battle of Košare was overall inconclusive given that neither of the two contenders succeeded in obtaining a complete victory. Tactically, however, it was the Yugoslav forces that achieved the best results. Taken by surprise in the early stages of the fighting, Belgrade's men masterfully managed to stabilize the front line by diverting a growing number of reinforcements and forcing opponents to transform the operational theater into the true focal point of strategic attention when perhaps, using the same resources elsewhere could have been successful. Not only that, among the military and police units of reinforcement that the Yugoslavs managed to bring to the front (at the time of the maximum engagement, Belgrade deployed the beauty of 10.000 men around Košare, out of a total of military 144.000 and 20.000 policemen present in Kosovo) there were also the leading elements of the 549a motorized brigade, the 125a motorized brigade, the 63a brigade paratroopers, the 72th reconnaissance commando battalion, the anti-terrorist battalion “Falchi”, the military police battalion for special operations “Cobra” , the special anti-terrorism unit "SAJ" and the special operations unit "JSO" without the NATO air campaign being able to minimize either the deployment or the fighting capacity of these units.

Particularly valuable were then the services provided by the men of the 63a brigade paratroopers who, having reached the front at a particularly delicate moment after the first initial showers, and suffering a certain number of losses, still managed to stabilize the front and absorb the main weight of the Albanian offensive without giving ground, while writing some of the most memorable pages in the military history of their unity and the Serbian people in general.

Photo: US Air Force / YouTube / web