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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Kosovo Conflict

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Kosovo conflict.

When did this conflict occur?

24th March, 1999^ – 10th June, 1999*

^ – Though the NATO air campaign in response to continued human rights abuses by Serbian forces operating in Kosovo only began on the 24th of March, 1999, the rise of armed hostilities in the country dates back to the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1994. [1] 

* – The NATO air effort in support of Kosovo Liberation Army forces ended on the 10th of June; however, an international peacekeeping effort known as Kosovo Force, KFOR, arrived two days later on the 12th of June. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The origins of the conflict in Kosovo, originally regarded as an Albanian Muslim-majority province of Serbia, can be most readily traced to Albanian demonstrations which erupted in 1989 as a result of President Slobodan Milošević’s deliberate abrogation of the constitutional autonomy afforded to Kosovo under Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution. [3] Though largely peaceful in their initial stages, the protest movement, which culminated with a formal declaration of independence for Kosovo in July of 1990, turned to violence, with the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1994. Sporadic attacks against Serbian political leaders and law enforcement officers soon escalated, and, by 1998, the KLA insurgency had evolved into a large-scale armed uprising. [4] The Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Armed Forces, in addition to Serb police and paramilitary units, responded with a relentless campaign of coercion which saw thousands of civilian deaths in addition to a growing refugee crisis. An initial attempt by the Contact Group – an informal coalition composed of the United States, United Kingdom,  Germany, France, Italy, and Russia – to negotiate a ceasefire, the return of all externally-displaced persons, and unrestricted international monitoring collapsed, as the KLA renewed its offensive. The Yugoslav and Serbian counter-attack, marked by the widespread targeting of Albanian noncombatants, resulted in a UN Security Council arms embargo, and, following the failure of secondary negotiations at Rambouillet, a NATO decision to take action. [5] An eleven-week air campaign beginning on the 24th of March resulted in widespread destruction of Serbian military and civilian infrastructure spanning as far as the capital of Belgrade, and, beginning in June of 1999, NATO and the Yugoslav government began formal negotiations for an end to military hostilities. 

What role did British military forces play?

British military involvement in Kosovo began in the earliest phases of the NATO intervention in March of 1999. Though justified as a humanitarian imperative given continued human rights abuses by Yugoslav and Serbian forces, the NATO military effort in Kosovo began without UN Security Council authorisation and remains a matter of legal contention today. [6] In the air, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, alongside aircraft from the United States, France, and other NATO partner states, embarked on a relentless aerial campaign against Serbian military and civilian infrastructure. In the space of eleven weeks, British aircraft employed more than 1000 explosive munitions, of which an estimated 531 were cluster bombs, a rate of consumption so elevated that subsequent reports found that a continued air campaign would have quickly exhausted remaining stockpiles of ammunition. [7] Though initially centred primarily on military targets such as large troop concentrations, equipment storage facilities, and command-and-control nodes, the NATO target list soon expanded to incorporate major civilian infrastructure targets located in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, seeking to punish the city’s military and political elites while also weakening Milošević’s base of popular domestic support. [8] On the ground, elements of the British special operations community, drawn largely from the 22nd Special Air Service, inserted ahead of NATO aircraft, serving to designate key targets and conduct post-strike battle damage assessments. [9] Conventional ground forces, drawn initially the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Gurkha Rifles, soon followed as part of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping effort; in one instance, elements of the Irish Guards tasked with securing Pristina Airport narrowly avoided a confrontation with Russian airborne forces, who had landed there without prior approval from NATO or KFOR leaders. [10] Today, the British ground presence in Kosovo continues, with elements of 1st Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, currently deployed alongside enabler elements of the 16th Air Assault Brigade in support of the newly-established Kosovo Security Force. [11]

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian casualties due to British military action cannot be determined with the evidence, reports and data available. In contrast, a confirmed number of 9 British military personnel died in the Balkans region in 1999 [12].

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

There is no official record of how many civilians were killed in Kosovo as a result of British military intervention. Indeed, NATO’s Secretary General, at the time, Lord Robertson stated that “the actual toll in human lives will never actually be precisely known” [13]. However, Human Rights Watch was able to produce a number for how many civilians were killed by NATO forces. HRW found that 489-528 were killed by NATO’s air campaign in former-Yugoslavia [14]. Nearly 60% of these deaths, 278-317, were civilians in Kosovo. 201 were in Serbia and 8 were killed in Montenegro. 

  • NATO: HRW found 90 incidents of NATO airstrikes in Kosovo where civilians had died. 9 of the attacks were found to be on “non-military” targets and as such constitute “illegitimate attacks” [15]. These included the bombing of the Serb Radio and Television headquarters, the New Belgrade heating plant and 7 bridges that had no military functions. 
  • 6th April 1999: British Harrier GR7s began dropping RBL7555 cluster bombs in Kosovo. 
  • 24th April 1999: a NATO submunition cluster bomb exploded in Doganovic killing 5 boys [16]. 
  • In May of 1999, a NATO bomb went off-target and exploded on a hospital complex adjacent to a civilian area in Nis [17]. 
  • 21st June 1999: the first two British soldiers that were killed in Kosovo happened when the two soldiers were attempting to defuse a NATO cluster bomb near a school in the village of Orlate in the Negrovce area. Two civilians were also killed by the explosion [18]. 

The use of cluster bombs was widely criticised in the press at the time as critics began to question their ability to carry out “precision targeting”. Due to mounting public pressure against their use an executive order was given in the U.S. in May of 1999 stopping the U.S. airforce from using cluster bombs [19]. However, the Royal Air Force continued to use cluster bombs even after the U.S. had stopped. Although it is not possible to determine all of the incidents and airstrikes British military personnel were involved in, as all NATO troops acted collaboratively during the operation, a few incidents have been identified where there was confirmed British participation. HRW found 7 confirmed and 5 likely incidents involving civilian deaths from cluster bombs used by the U.S. and British airforces [20].  There is confirmation of the use of cluster bombs by the British airforce on 17th May, 31st May, 3rd June and 4th June 1999 [21]. 


[1] Bekaj, Armend R. The KLA and the Kosovo War: From Intrastate Conflict to Independent Country (Berlin: Berghof Foundation, 2010): 19.

[2] On this day 12th June, Royal Signals Museum, 2015,

[3] Richard Nelsson, “How Milosevic stripped Kosovo’s autonomy – archive, 1989,” The Guardian, 2019,

[4] Rama, Famir. The Liberation and Independence of Kosovo (Leavenworth: NCO Journal, 2018): 1-2.

[5] Kosovo profile – Timeline, BBC News, 2019,

[6] Chinkin, Christine, “The Legality of NATO’s Action in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) Under International Law,”  International & Comparative Law Quarterly 49, no.4 (2000): 915-917. 

[7] Richard Norton-Taylor, “RAF ‘nearly ran out of bombs’ in Kosovo,” The Guardian, 2000,

[8] William A. Sayers, “Operation Allied Force,” Air Force Magazine, 2019,

[9] UK SAS ‘on ground in Kosovo’, BBC News, 1999,

[10] Kosovo, National Army Museum, 2017,,to%20ensure%20security%20and%20stability

[11] Gurkhas in action with KFOR in Kosovo, Army, 2021,

[12] UK Ministry of Defence, ‘UK Armed Forces Operational Deaths Post WWII’, Gov.UK, 2015,

[13] Lord Robertson, ‘Kosovo One Year On’, 2000,

[14] Human Rights Watch, “Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign”, Human Rights Watch, 2000,

[15] Human Rights Watch, 2000,

[16] Human Rights Watch, 2000,

[17] Human Rights Watch, “NATO’s Use of Cluster Munitions in Yugoslavia”, Human Rights Watch, 1999,

[18] Buncombe, A., “Liberation of Kosovo : Two British soldiers die in Kosovo, The Independent, 1999,

[19] Human Rights Watch, 1999,

[20] Human Rights Watch, 2000,

[21] Human Rights Watch, 2000,