Biggest Airstrike Ended a Battle, Perhaps a War |
By John Ward Anderson
ROMAJA, Yugoslavia, June 25—Demir Qenaj had been behind enemy lines for 12 days on one of the war's most dangerous assignments. A member of the Kosovo Albanian rebels' special forces unit, his mission was to infiltrate Serb-held territory here on Mount Pastrik, find their encampments and artillery batteries and secretly direct guerrilla mortar fire onto those positions over his radio.
It was clear the Serbs knew he was somewhere near because they kept jamming the frequencies. But so far, Qenaj and the 10-man unit he commanded had escaped detection, even though they had made several hazardous forays back to their own lines for food, gingerly sidestepping Serbian minefields that lined Kosovo's border with Albania.
It was about noon on Monday, June 7, and Qenaj was about to witness one of the critical battles of the war, one believed to have caused more Serbian casualties than any other engagement. Two days later, Yugoslav generals would formally agree to withdraw all forces from Kosovo, ending the 11-week war.
Crouched behind some brush 275 yards from Yugoslav positions, Qenaj was watching heavy fighting between 250 fellow members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army as they advanced down the northeast side of the mountain toward a camp with about 600 to 700 Serbian soldiers. The KLA was making progress: The battle was no longer an artillery duel, but an intense, close-up firefight with automatic weapons and grenades.
Suddenly, there was a rapid series of massive explosions, the ground rumbled, and Qenaj was blown backward off of his feet, landing hard on his back. He was gasping for breath and there was a loud ringing in his ears. Thick black smoke blanketed the area like a dense fog. There were other blasts all around as the conflagration set off secondary explosions from Serbian ammunition piled near about 20 artillery guns.
"There was smoke everywhere, and at times you didn't know what was going on," Qenaj, 26, recounted in an interview today. "One of my men yelled, 'What the hell was that?'. . . I knew what was happening."
It was by most accounts the deadliest NATO airstrike of the 11-week war -- a decisive blow by American B-52 bombers that dropped a heavy payload of cluster bombs on 800 to 1,200 Serbs massing on the Kosovo side of Mount Pastrik to repel the KLA offensive. The hulking, 6,523-foot peak marks the border between Yugoslavia and Albania.
NATO military sources said initial estimates indicated that as many as half the Serbian soldiers -- 400 to 600 men -- were killed in the attack. KLA soldiers who were there put the Serbian death toll at more than 200. Qenaj said that shortly after the bombing, he monitored a Serbian radio call from the nearby Kosovo city of Prizren to Mount Pastrik asking the number of casualties. "They said about 260 men were dead." As for KLA casualties in the NATO strike, Qenaj said, "There were too many."
The precise number of casualties suffered on Mount Pastrik during a massive bombardment by U.S. B-52 and B-1 bombers and A-10 tank-killer aircraft during the first week of June is not known, although by some accounts more than 1,000 Serbs may have been killed. NATO sources at allied headquarters in Brussels say they do not expect to have a definitive body count until a bomb damage assessment team -- sent at the order of NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- reaches the area sometime after the first week of July.
But NATO officials believe the heavy Yugoslav losses helped hasten an end to the war -- together with intensified NATO bombing of strategic targets such as electric power plants in Serbia proper. Within two days of the June 7 attack, Yugoslav generals signed an agreement with NATO agreeing to the alliance's terms, a decision that led to the withdrawal of all Serbian forces from Kosovo province and the deployment of thousands of allied peacekeepers.
What Qenaj did not know as he surveyed the carnage from the bombing was that other KLA members, according to the account of one rebel, were assisting NATO in targeting the Serbs during those final days on Mount Pastrik, when the rebel offensive flushed out the Yugoslav army.
From his perch about 1,300 feet above the Serbian camp, Veli Shatri said he and several hundred KLA soldiers were facing stiff resistance as they battled their way down the mountain. The KLA was trying to establish a new supply line by breaking open a corridor from the Albanian border to the Kosovo town of Has, according to Shatri and Qenaj.
Shatri, 19, said he saw about 500 Serb soldiers, numerous artillery guns and jeeps. With the KLA progress stalled, he said, they called in the Serbian position to NATO.
He said that NATO did not tell the KLA units to withdraw. "We didn't know NATO would attack. We gave them the information and we were just waiting," he said. It was Monday, June 7. "And then, suddenly, there were so many bombs, and we waved and yelled 'NA-TO! NA-TO!' " Shatri estimated 200 Serbian troops were killed in the attack.
Shatri, interviewed at his home in Kusnin, close to the battle site, said his 80-man outfit on the mountainside had one killed and two wounded in the fighting. Three days after the bombing, he said, the rebels sent herds of sheep down the mountain ahead of them as a precaution against land mines, and took two Serbian prisoners. He said the Serbs had already gathered their dead and withdrawn.
Qenaj said all the men in his small special forces squad survived. He said he went back to the site about five days after the bombing and found many torn uniforms, destroyed artillery and jeeps and numerous gas masks.
Qenaj, who now is a KLA police officer in his home town of Romaja on the slopes of Mount Pastrik, said that the battle and NATO bombing had a huge psychological impact on Yugoslav troops. "The soldiers lost their morale -- a lot were deserting," he said.
Today, the rebels say that no one can visit the battle area because it is surrounded by land mines and saturated with unexploded NATO bombs.
An arc of ethnic Albanian villages on the eastern side of Mount Pastrik -- principally Planeja, Miljaj and Gorozup -- that had been occupied by Yugoslav troops has largely been destroyed from the pounding by U.S. warplanes.
The villages are surrounded by fields of deep bomb craters and scorched brown forests of snapped trees. Most of the stone buildings in the hamlets were pulverized and are little more than mounds of gray rubble.
When Haxhi Kasolli, 70, returned to Planeja after the war to tend his cows, he discovered that NATO bombing had obliterated the village. "There were 100 to 200 Serb troops here when I left," said Kasolli, who lives in a small community just north of Planeja and who returned home earlier this week after spending more than two months as a refugee in Albania. Today, one section of Kasolli's house is the only structure left standing in his part of town.
At the edge of Planeja, Shani Vorfaj, 45, and his sons picked through the rubble of their house, gathering a few personal items that had somehow survived.
"If not for NATO, the Serbs would have killed us," he said, adding that he holds no grudge. "NATO didn't have anything against us, and I don't have anything against them."
Correspondent William Drozdiak in Brussels contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company