Kosovo: KLA getting their deserts, say the Serbs

Serb tanks bomb a strategic highway in the latest breach of the ceasefire. Raymond Whitaker reports
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The Independent Online
WE NEVER did fulfil our appointment with Commander Remi. The Kosovo Liberation Army officer had agreed the previous day to show us his positions in the north of Kosovo, near the ethnically mixed town of Podujevo, as long as we arrived at dawn.

At Podujevo, we left the asphalt roads controlled by Serbian forces and weaved our way along a succession of muddy tracks to the village of Llapashtica, reaching his headquarters before 8am.

But Commander Remi was unavailable. His deputy, Ismet Cakiqi, emerged from the KLA compound and said the Serbian forces were on the move. "If they are going to attack, they will do so between 9 and 11am," he said. "You can't stay here. Come back later."

Half an hour later we were in a Serbian cafe in Podujevo when the windows began to shake with tank fire. "It's good to hear them getting what they deserve," one of the other patrons said.

Heavy-calibre machine-guns and mortars joined the chorus, and the town's busy streets emptied within seconds as the reports echoed around the snow- topped mountains. Three Serbian policemen came in and sat down, but refused to say what was going on. "You'll have to go to our headquarters," said one.

A short distance outside town it was easy to see for ourselves. A small group of Kosovo Albanian refugees came running with bags under their arms from the direction of Llapashtica, but their progress was slowed by one woman who was clearly in pain. "She gave birth yesterday," said another woman. "Someone else has taken the baby to safety."

Further down the same road a Serbian tank was blocking the way, watched by a huddle of monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). All day the "peace verifiers" were coming and going from their area headquarters in Podujevo, trying, like us, to establish what was happening, but no one had gone to Llapashtica. "It's too dangerous," said one.

Mortar shells were dropping on the road we had used earlier, and another route was blocked by a Serbian checkpoint where they had told us the previous day: "We don't want to see you again."

It was a long detour past occasional parties of fleeing civilians to the other side of the checkpoint, where an all-out race along an exposed stretch of asphalt and a screaming turn below a point 200 yards from KLA trenches brought us to Branac, the next headquarters of the guerrilla movement.

Here, the quest to find another way to Llapashtica and Commander Remi was ended by mud, impassable to all but military vehicles.

Back at Podujevo the Swiss head of the local monitoring team, Andreas Vogel, said it was the heaviest bombardment by the Serbs since OSCE arrived in the area a month ago, adding: "They are particularly incensed by the points where the KLA is very close to the main road, as they are at Branac."

For several miles along the highway south to Pristina, Kosovo's capital, tanks and armoured cars had taken the high ground to pour fire on the guerrilla positions, with very little chance of answering fire from the lightly armed KLA fighters.

Regular troops were augmented by police paramilitaries and balaclava- clad forces of the Interior Ministry's special anti-terrorist unit, which has been accused of setting up death squads to kill the KLA's supporters.

The day's events illustrated the hopelessness of OSCE's task, as well as that of Christopher Hill, the US peace envoy, who met KLA representatives in Kosovo yesterday.

A European Union representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, also met Ibrahim Rugova, the most senior Kosovo Albanian politician, in an attempt to arrive at a common Albanian position before autonomy talks are resumed, but the KLA has announced that it intends to bypass Mr Rugova and set up its own political body.

Continual violations of the October ceasefire are also wrecking chances of an agreement on Kosovo's future. After Serbian forces were withdrawn under the threat of Nato bombing, the KLA used the pause to expand their territory.

The Serbs are trying to win it back, and the unarmed international monitors are backed only by the threat of world opprobium.

Mr Vogel said: "They are supposed to tell us when they make moves like this, but they never do."

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