Liberation Of Kosovo: 50 years on, the Germans confront the Serbs again

Click to follow
AFTER AN absence of more than half a century since Kosovo Albanians helped them to fight Tito's Communist partisans, German troops moving into Kosovo might have expected a warm welcome. They got one yesterday from the Kosovars but ran into problems from remaining Serbs.

Their reception by Kosovo Albanians could not have been warmer. They were cheered as liberators and showered with wild flowers and branches when they rumbled through the city centre in Leopard tanks. Even journalists were cheered with chants of "Nato, Nato!"

The people of Prizren explained they would have tossed bouquets and sweets if they had any. They had lived on the basics and in cellars for almost three months and only yesterday dared to venture out into the day and the streets in numbers.

But the Germans also faced Serb soldiers, police, paramilitary fighters and civilians who showed a strong reluctance to leave the city, firing rifle bursts over the heads of local civilians and German troops.

As of yesterday evening, many Serbs were still here and tensions ran high. Ethnic Albanian residents tried to block the exit of local Serbs, then stoned their vehicles, kicked them and spat at them. The Serbs fired shots from their car windows, sending locals scattering.

The Serb soldiers huddled in their vehicles as windscreens and windows were smashed. Clearly terrified Serbian civilians, in everything from ice-cream vans to packed lorries and a tractor, made it through the gauntlet just in time as the Albanian residents' anger rose.

When we drove into Kosovo from Albania after a tense drive ahead of German tanks that had postponed their entry - "there are mines and booby traps within centimetres of the tarmacked road surface" warned a senior German officer - we first passed deserted, burnt-out villages and huge craters caused by Nato bombs. Then we ran into groups of Serb soldiers and civilians lined up along the roadside in convoys, their vehicles packed with the contents of the looted village homes. "Where did you get the nice cars?" I asked, knowing most had been stolen from local ethnic Albanians. "They are ours," they replied.

As we entered Prizren, we passed hundreds of civilian vehicles packed with Serbs, with their belongings piled on roof racks, waiting to try to leave in convoys. It was an ironic sight to see so many Serbs - men, women and children - about to become the region's new refugees. But it was difficult to feel sympathy.

Some made a run for it in groups as German infantrymen tried to hold back the angry crowd. Others, including paramilitary fighters who had changed into civilian clothes, including a notorious paramilitary called Wilson who is in fact an ethnic Albanian, were still here last night, standing in streets alongside convoys of their vehicles, apparently waiting for the German troops to clear a path.

Many of the Serb civilians cradled automatic weapons only 30 yards from where Albanians cheered the Germans.

At one point, a Serb army platoon moved up to a main Prizren crossroads on foot, entering homes and threatening Albanian residents. They shouted: "We will be back and we'll kill you all."

One soldier, wearing a black-and-white bandanna around his head, instilled particular terror on the locals and stopped only when he came up against a line of German soldiers.

The Serb commander in Prizren, Colonel Bozidar Delic, fired three rifle shots over our heads and those of German soldiers. That is when Major Harald List of the German army claimed his little part of history. As the cameras rolled, he slapped down some of the Serbs' rifle barrels and ordered them to move back down a side street. They did so slowly, shouting obscenities at the Albanian residents and waving the three-fingered Serb victory sign.

Major List, in a red beret, quickly took on hero status here, wildly applauded every time he passed, always hanging precariously from the side of a Jeep.

Almost single-handedly, he accompanied individual Serb civilian vehicles out of town. But Serbs were still living in the Dushanova suburb and in the hills above the city centre. Before the current crisis, there were about 10,000 Serbs in Prizren to 90,000 ethnic Albanians.

Earlier in the day, General Helmut Harff, commander of German forces in Kosovo, showed the new German army is a force to be reckoned with. With Serb forces still dug in on the southern border, across from Morini, Albania, he flew in by helicopter to land on Kosovo soil behind Serb lines.

A few German vehicles had already arrived at the scene.

Colonel Delic was there with two other Serb officers and all shook hands. "Kosovo refugees are trying to come across and we want to set up a roadblock," said Colonel Feher Jozef of the Yugoslav army.

"This is a free country. There's no frontier," replied General Harff brusquely. "If the refugees want to come in, they will not be stopped by German soldiers."

"But not now," replied Colonel Jozef. General Harff did not hesitate. "This is not a border police force. You are VJ (the Yugoslav army) and you must leave at once. No discussion. How many minutes do you need to leave?"

It was Col Delic who replied: "Six hours."

"That's not possible. You have 30 minutes," said the German general. "We need a receipt for the ammunition we're leaving behind," said Col Jozef. "The paperwork will be done in Prizren. That's an order," said the general. "Time's running out. You've got 28 minutes left. End of discussion."

The Serb officers then gave the order and 70 young Serb soldiers emerged from a hillside path, including snipers cradling their rifles. Mostly teenagers and exhausted, they looked so different from the figures we had seen on hilltop positions and who had occasionally fired at us to keep us away from the border.