NATO Welcomed Joyfully to Kosovo |
By Michael Dobbs and Molly Moore
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 13 – Encouraged by a rapid buildup of NATO peacekeeping forces in their war-torn homeland, ethnic Albanians across Kosovo emerged en masse today from 2½ months in hiding to reclaim streets, cafes and village squares for themselves.
As NATO peacekeepers advanced deeper into the Serbian province, there were scattered reports of resistance and violence on the part of both withdrawing Serb-led Yugoslav security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, and of a serious confrontation between German peacekeepers and Serbian civilians in the southwestern town of Prizren.
A number of killings were reported throughout Kosovo, including two armed Serbs shot dead by NATO troops, two German journalists slain by unidentified snipers and several Yugoslav soldiers believed to have been killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army – a separatist ethnic Albanian guerrilla group.
But for Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, forced to hide in their homes or wander the province during 11 weeks of expulsions and pillage by Yugoslav troops and Serbian police, the overwhelming feeling was that of fear evaporating. In scenes reminiscent of the liberation of Europe in World War II or of Kuwait in 1991, ethnic Albanians with tears in their eyes kissed and hugged NATO soldiers and presented them with bouquets of red roses. Here in the Kosovo capital, virtually a ghost town just a couple of days ago, children clambered onto tanks, and teenage girls posed for photographs with British paratroops.
"At last, we can breathe freely, without fear," said Enver Sadiknu, 37, standing in front of a British tank that had taken a position in central Pristina. "We are able to go out on the streets and not be afraid of the Serbs."
NATO troops solidified their control in the capital, but the city's airport remained the centerpiece of a standoff between Russian troops who seized control of it early Saturday morning and NATO forces who had planned to make it their operational headquarters. The Russians, who are slated eventually to become part of the overall peacekeeping force, continued to deny NATO troops access to the airport, prompting an explosion of rage from a frustrated British commander.
"What the hell are you doing here? Get on to your commanders and get out of here now," Brig. Adrian Freer, commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, roared at Russian paratroops barring access to the field. His angry tone contrasted dramatically with his remarks Saturday, when he told reporters that he was going to the airport to "make love" to the Russians.
With the departure of Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo generally proceeding on schedule, the row with the Russians has emerged as the most embarrassing diplomatic distraction for NATO as it attempts to establish control over Kosovo and prepare the way for the return of the more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians who were driven from the province. Some NATO officers also expressed concern about attempts by the Kosovo Liberation Army to take advantage of the Yugoslav withdrawal and seize strategic positions.
Lt. Col. Paul Gibson, commander of the British 1st Paratroop Battalion, said British troops had found the bodies of five Yugoslav soldiers overnight and suspect they had been killed by the KLA. "The Yugoslav army is withdrawing on schedule and is in compliance with the military-technical agreement," he said, referring to a document signed last week by NATO and Yugoslav army officers. "We are trying to make sure that the KLA doesn't harass them on the way out."
An woman who identified herself as a KLA member said the guerrilla force is respecting its commitment not to fire on retreating Yugoslav army units and that the five soldiers had probably been killed in a firefight. She added, however, that the guerrillas will refuse to lay down their arms until all government security forces had left the province and a disarmament order had been received from KLA leader Hashim Thaqi.
Other violence around the province today included a sniper attack in the village of Dulje, 25 miles south of Pristina, in which two German journalists died. In Pristina, British paratroops fatally shot a Serbian police reservist after the man fired a pistol at a NATO patrol, an alliance spokesman said. In Prizren, German troops shot and killed a man who had opened fire on them from a car; a second man in the car was critically wounded.
About 5,000 NATO troops have entered Kosovo since they began pouring across the province's borders Saturday morning, the vanguard of 50,000 who will ultimately be deployed here. Today, the first major U.S. Army detachment crossed into Kosovo, following several dozen Army and Marine liaison elements that traveled to Pristina Saturday with British forces. The force that entered today included a battalion of about 375 paratroops from the 82nd Airborne Division, plus nine M1-A1 tanks and four Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicles from the 1st Infantry Division. Their assignment is to secure an area around the town of Urosevac – the western flank of what will be the American sector in southeastern Kosovo.
The first 1,200 of the 2,200 U.S. Marines who are gathering near the Macedonian capital, Skopje, are scheduled to enter Kosovo at daybreak Monday, according to a Pentagon official.
An estimated 11,000 Yugoslav troops – about a quarter of the government troops in Kosovo – have left the province, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said today. She added that about 15 percent of the Yugoslav army's tanks and 35 percent of its other armored vehicles have departed.
In Pristina, where the Yugoslav army has until Tuesday to complete its withdrawal, the public displays of enthusiasm for NATO among ethnic Albanians remained tempered by the continued presence of Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian police in some parts of the city. "We are joyful about NATO coming, but we are careful not to show our joy too much," said Qefsene Nischevci, 40, as she watched British paratroops take control of an area called Sunny Hill. "There will be time for that later on."
Demonstrations on the outskirts of the capital and in outlying towns – where British armored units have established a more imposing force and the only visible Serbs were those joining civilian convoys heading north into Serbia proper – were more spontaneously jubilant. At major highway intersections outside Pristina, crowds of laughing, cheering children decorated the gun barrels of British tanks with roses and wild flowers.
In villages where departing Yugoslav troops torched ethnic Albanian-owned houses and shops Saturday evening as NATO convoys rumbled past on a nearby highway, the mood shifted today to overwhelming confidence. In Pristina, NATO troops did not intervene when Serbs set fire to a half-dozen houses in the largely ethnic Albanian suburb of Sofali; a British officer said that his troops had arrived in Pristina too late to prevent the burnings but that "we won't let it happen again".
At Pristina's airport, the drama surrounding the Russian seizure of NATO's planned headquarters generated into farce this morning as a traffic jam built up on the narrow road leading to the field. The gridlock developed after Russian paratroops blocked a convoy of French fuel trucks from entering the airport and insisted that they turn around in the middle of a muddy field.
The French troops, who had been ordered to set up a fuel depot at the airport, were supposed to coordinate with the British but were unable to establish communications. "If you see a British officer," a French major told a reporter, "let him know that there is a French convoy stuck here."
Negotiations on the base continued between Freer, the British brigadier, and Russian Gen. Valery Rybkin. Freer told reporters that they had reached agreement in principle to divide the airport between Russian and NATO troops, with both sides having access to the single runway. But word of the agreement seemed not to have filtered down to the Russian soldiers controlling access to the field.
Speaking on the NBC News program "Face the Nation," Albright said the dispute over the airport was nothing to become "over-excited" about. "I think [the Russians] got a little bit ahead of themselves, but there are now military-to-military discussions going on," she said. "And I think it will be very important to work out an agreement in which the unity of command, which they agreed to throughout all our discussions, where that will be honored."
Staff writers Bradley Graham and Jamie Stockwell in Washington contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company