Refugees Create Chaos in Kosovo |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 16, 1999; Page A1
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 15 – Ignoring stern warnings from international aid organizations, several thousand ethnic Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo today as NATO peacekeepers struggled to contain violence and looting by Serbian police and civilians making a chaotic exit from the province.
NATO officials said that about 20,000 Serb-led Yugoslav troops, or about half the number that had been deployed in Kosovo, were in the process of withdrawing or had already done so. The officials expressed confidence that the Belgrade government would largely comply with a deadline of midnight tonight for the removal of all Yugoslav troops and Serbian police from a broad portion of Kosovo that includes the capital, Pristina.
Government forces are required to withdraw completely from the Serbian province by June 20 under the agreement that ended NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia and allowed more than 1.2 million displaced and refugee Kosovo Albanians to return to their homes under the protection of NATO-led peacekeepers. The phased withdrawal of Belgrade government forces also has fueled an exodus from Kosovo of an estimated 33,000 Serbian civilians who fear reprisals by ethnic Albanians – sparking warnings from relief agencies of a new refugee crisis in the making.
Despite the unsettled conditions in Kosovo, about 2,000 ethnic Albanians from refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia and another 3,000 from Albania crossed into Kosovo by car, tractor and on foot, adding to a massive traffic jam of NATO armored vehicles and relief agency trucks. The congestion was so thick that one group of refugees who tried to bypass it wandered into an area that had been seeded with land mines. Two refugees were killed and a third was injured, said the U.N. refugee agency.
"We are very, very concerned about the return of the refugees," said agency official David McNamara. "We were taken by surprise. . . . It's too soon. We're not ready, security-wise. It's very difficult to get ahead of the political and military security plan, and that's the risk we face at the moment."
A NATO spokesman, Lt. Col. Robin Clifford, called the situation in Kosovo "a very volatile environment" but added that the ability of NATO troops to control refugee movement is limited. "There's nothing we can do to stop people leaving, and we are not going to physically stop anyone from coming in."
While relief officials were bracing for an unwanted influx of returning ethnic Albanians, NATO officials were still struggling to resolve the standoff between Russian and NATO forces at Pristina airport. Russia has refused to yield control of the facility, insisting that its forces must play an independent peacekeeping role in the province. NATO officials are suspicious of Russia's motives – Moscow has been Belgrade's chief ally since the Kosovo crisis began nearly three months ago – and want its forces to submit to NATO leadership in the peacekeeping operation.
A Russian truck convoy carrying food and fuel arrived in Pristina today to resupply the 200 troops who have been positioned around the airport since Saturday. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen are to discuss the matter with their Russian counterparts Thursday in Helsinki.
Throughout Kosovo, internally displaced ethnic Albanians as well as refugees from camps in Albania and Macedonia returned to burned towns and villages, where some say they discovered mass graves containing the bodies of neighbors and relatives as well as other evidence of atrocities. A spokesman for the U.N. war crimes tribunal said today that its representatives are in Kosovo interviewing purported witnesses to war crimes and are seeking NATO's help in guarding suspect grave sites until forensic scientists can reach them.
In Velika Krusa, a small town between the cities of Prizren and Djakovica, Dutch NATO troops found the charred bodies of about 20 people in a barn. "The people were first shot, then put on fire," said Col. Peter van der Aker, a spokesman for Dutch peacekeepers in Prizren. He said the bodies were so decomposed that their ages and sexes could not be determined immediately.
Amid the confusion of today's events, departing Belgrade government forces were reported to have attacked ethnic Albanians, including one in which a grenade was thrown at a group of people celebrating the departure of Yugoslav troops. The attack, in the southeastern town of Gnjilane, was said by local residents to have wounded 13 people, the Reuters news service reported.
In an incident in Pristina, a Serbian civilian shot and killed two young ethnic Albanian men and wounded another two after a street argument just 50 yards from a group of British troops, according to people who said they witnessed the shooting from their balcony. There also were indications that ethnic Albanians were retaliating against Serbs. According to a NATO spokesman, an ethnic Albanian in Pristina opened fire on a carload of Serbian civilians, killing one and wounding another.
Allied military commanders here also expressed concern about the growing number of ethnic Albanian separatist rebels – members of the Kosovo Liberation Army – that have emerged to claim control of the Morini crossing on the Albania-Kosovo border, as well as a police station in Pristina and elsewhere in the province. In the southwestern city of Prizren – slated for occupation by German NATO forces – KLA rebels with automatic weapons and and sniper rifles were directing street traffic and had assumed police duties.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea described Kosovo today as "an extremely charged atmosphere," adding that "there is no major fighting going on any longer, but we can't hide the fact . . . that there have been a large number of very regrettable incidents."
As the deadline approached for Yugoslav and Serbian security forces to pull out of southernmost Kosovo by midnight, there were several disputes between NATO troops and government units pleading for more time to withdraw. One such incident occurred in the village of Caglavica, a few miles south of Pristina, after an ethnic Albanian family complained that a Yugoslav army unit was occupying their home and refusing to leave.
British troops surrounded the house and demanded that the troops leave on schedule; they replied that they were planning to leave tomorrow morning and did not have transportation to pull out any earlier. Eventually, after a four-hour standoff, a bus arrived to take the 30 Yugoslav troops away. They seemed relieved to be leaving, saying that they had been in Kosovo for the past three months and that now it was up to NATO to provide security for the minority Serbian population in Kosovo – a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
"We fulfilled our mission; we defended the Serbs," said Dejan Stojanovic, 25, an army reservist, as he boarded the bus with a rolled-up flag under his arm. "The war was unfair. [NATO was] just bombing us from the air. They should have come from the ground."
As the soldiers prepared to leave, the tension between them and the NATO troops began to crack. "We had drinks with them last night; they're just like us," said one Yugoslav, laughing with a British soldier. "But they are not as strong as us when it comes to alcohol."
The political repercussions of Belgrade's capitulation continued to reverberate throughout the country, as the Serbian Orthodox Church called on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to resign, along with his entire government. The Church's highest body, the Holy Synod, issued a statement declaring that the country's "numerous internal problems" and its international isolation "cannot be solved or overcome with this kind of leadership."
While the Orthodox Church has no political role, it exercises important moral authority and is probably the most important independent voice left in the country, now that much of the media have been silenced. Church leaders have been increasingly critical of Milosevic and have accused him of betraying the interests of the ethnic Serb minority in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia.
Traditionally reluctant to criticize state authorities, the Church began issuing statements attacking Milosevic two years ago, after his government annuled election results that favored opposition parties. The Church has also called on Milosevic to repair relations with Montenegro, Serbia's disaffected partner in the Yugoslav federation, and to stop trying to use the army to undermine Montenegro's pro-Western government.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company