Fatal skirmish gives the lie to peace in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
FROM THE wooded ridge along Berisha mountain, the valley below, green and calm, is a bucolic picture to gladden the hearts of the 2,000 people dispatched to monitor the withdrawal of Yugoslav soldiers and police from Kosovo. But the road below, the white building and wavering treeline mark a treacherous front-line between separatist rebels in the hills and special police units sent to enforce Serbia's rule.

As with many a Balkan ceasefire, the fighting goes on, albeit at a lower level of intensity - and people still get killed, soldiers now rather than civilians. On Saturday night, journalists returning to Pristina with a police escort came upon the aftermath of what seemed to have been an attack by the Kosovo Liberation Army on a police post in the village of Orlate.

Three policemen were dead and two wounded. Anti- terrorist units blamed the KLA and banned the use of headlights. A few kilometres east, along the main road to Pristina, a second crew filmed tracer fire and gunshots, evidence, the police at Komorane said, of another KLA attack.

"Last night the police tried to enter some houses in Upper Orlate, from the main road, but our defending forces did not let them in, and there was a great deal of shooting," said Feriz Bytyqi, who had driven his tractor up to Novo Selo from Orlate, where he lives.

This was not the only skirmish reported in the area. The night before, a battle between Serbian police and KLA soldiers had claimed the life of Fehmi Kastrati, a 20-year-old soldier, who was buried on Saturday afternoon near the refugee camp of Kishna Reka, on the other side of the Berisha ridge.

Yesterday afternoon his relatives were greeting well- wishers in a plastic tent at the camp. An honour guard, two KLA soldiers, stood rigidly to attention in front of a table bearing the Albanian flag, a condolence book and a photograph of the dead soldier.

His father, neat in the elderly suit, waistcoat and felt hat favoured by older Albanian men, was dignified and sad. Ali, his 18-year-old brother, was in the uniform of youth - jeans and black leather jacket - but with a red KLA headband tied around his brow, a deathbed gift from Fehmi. "He was a fighter, he had to be a fighter to stop his family being massacred," Ali said. "What would you do?" Fehmi was apparently shot as his unit retreated from Orlate on Friday night.

Each side blamed the other for provoking the battle. "The KLA soldiers and local defenders were living in houses in the area to make it impossible for the police to come into houses and destroy them," said Eprori, a KLA officer and relative of the dead soldier. Hence the fighting. Another KLA officer denied there had been any conflict on Saturday night, and claimed the dead policemen had been planted by the Serbs.

For its part, the Serbian Media Centre in Pristina issues daily bulletins detailing "KLA attacks" on police positions in which police are often wounded but which often include the virtuous phrase: "The police did not fire back."

Into this atmosphere will come the 2,000 unarmed international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. An advance party of almost 30 technical experts arrived in Pristina over the weekend to organise headquarters, living accommodation, communications and the like for the monitors. The first of these will not arrive until the middle of the week but John Sandrock, leading the advance party, announced yesterday: "The OSCE is now alive and well here in Pristina."

The question is, how long will the mission stay this way? And will it be able to conduct its operations - it is supposed to determine whether President Slobodan Milosevic has reduced his army and police force to peacetime levels.

Mr Sandrock would not be drawn on any "political" issues, emphasising the technical nature of his team. He could not say yet how and where monitors would be deployed nor what kind of co-operation they were expecting from the KLA But he wanted a safe place in which to work.

"We have to operate in a benign environment, in a permissive environment," he said. Security will "be a prime concern here". Areas of conflict, or where conflict was a real possibility, would be avoided, since the "verifiers" will go unarmed.

The KLA officers said they would respect the rights of the monitors and treat them properly, in accordance with military law. But, according to Eprori: "We are afraid that when the verifiers are here, that maybe we will have a case of police with KLA uniforms attacking observers." He also claimed that in the area around the Berisha mountain controlled by the KLA there had been no Yugoslav troop withdrawals.

It will be the monitors' task to decide whether the troops have gone and whether it is safe for refugees to return home - not a task made easier by the latest skirmishes.