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  • Symbol of Serbian Control Gives Way to KLA

    By R. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Finn
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, June 28, 1999; Page A14

    PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 27 The Grand Hotel here in Kosovo's capital seemed like an improbable target for a hostile takeover. Famous for its surly service, bad plumbing and immense insects, the state-owned hotel has been one of the most visible symbols of the Serb-run Belgrade government's presence here. Its rooms have not been renovated some say cleaned in years.

    The government's propaganda machine churned out Serb-centered news in a second-floor suite, and its intelligence agents operated from rooms on the fourth floor. For years, anyone in need of a policemen had only to look for one of the leather-coated plainclothesmen who spent the day lounging in the lobby drinking bitter coffee.

    Until tonight.

    As evening fell, drinks at the bar were free and served with a smile, courtesy of the Kosovo Liberation Army's Atlantic Brigade, a group of Albanian Americans who left New York several months ago to fight for Kosovo's independence. They survived the war and opened a new battleground here tonight by seizing control of one of the last Serbian redoubts in the capital the dimly-lit Grand Hotel bar.

    New barman Frank Mehmeti, 24, a former party promoter in the Bronx, promptly declared it a beachhead from which the KLA would capture the reception area on Monday, the media center the following day, and eventually the squalid rooms 10 floors overhead. "We'll take this area over now. We're going to work our way up until we have the whole hotel," he said.

    "Drinks on the house," he added. "Drink as much as you want."

    Not sharing their festive mood, the hotel director chose to call British peacekeeping troops, who briefly tolerated an impromptu lobby party featuring loud Albanian folk music and line dancing by two dozen ethnic Albanians. The soldiers escorted at least six Serbian toughs suspected of being Belgrade intelligence operatives from the hotel.

    The British then held an impromptu news conference. Maj. Ian Seraph, a spokesman for British forces, said the hotel director had agreed to hold a meeting Tuesday on reintegrating ethnic Albanians into the hotel staff including former employees who were fired 10 years ago along with tens of thousands of other Kosovo Albanians in numerous industries. The mass firings were part of a campaign by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to give Serbs and Serbian interests preference in Kosovo, a Serbian province. About 50 people now work at the Grand, virtually all of them Serbs.

    The reception staff looked bewildered as ethnic Albanians celebrated. "They got into the bar," said Dusan Jaric, who has worked at the reception desk for nine years and receives a paycheck from Belgrade. "No workers were there; a lot of them had left."

    But the party was short-lived because British soldiers called last drinks at 10 p.m. Mehmeti, who said with a smile that he would like to become the Grand Hotel's party planner, was not contrite. "This was an Albanian-operated hotel 10 years ago. Basically, we're just taking it back," he said. Pointing to the Serbs at reception, he said "they can even come join us [in the celebration]." But then he thought a minute and added, "I don't know if I'll serve them."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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