Liberation of Kosovo: Casualties - Shock at Gurkhas' base over loss of `fine soldiers'

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The Independent Online
THE FLAGS at Invicta Barracks in Maidstone, Kent, were flying at half mast yesterday, after soldiers there were told of the death of two of their comrades in Kosovo. Two minutes' silence was also observed following the special morning parade. Officers spoke of shock at the base following the losses, but also of pride in the men, combat engineers who were described as "fine soldiers".

Lieutenant Gareth Evans, 24, and Sergeant Balaram Rai, 35, died while trying to clear unexploded Nato cluster bombs from outside the schoolhouse in the village of Negrovce, central Kosovo, on Monday. Both were with 69 Gurkha Field Squadron of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, part of 36 Royal Engineers Regiment based at Maidstone, and who left for the Balkans only two weeks ago. In Kosovo yesterday, troops of the Royal Gurkha Rifles were devastated but determined to carry on with their vital work of mine and ordnance clearing. Many of those in the infantry regiment knew the dead men.

"When the boys first heard the news we were all a bit shocked," said Sergeant Krishna Gurung, who joined up at the same time as Sgt Rai. "But now everything is back to normal. Those guys who were killed were engineers and it was their job to clear mines."

Operating near the village of Halilaq, which sits on the side of Mount Golas, these soldiers also had to destroy recently a number of unexploded Nato cluster bombs. Both incidents highlight the huge risk of sudden death or injury in Kosovo from mines, booby traps and unexploded ordnance.

Part of the problem is due to "nuisance mining" by departing Serbian forces, where one or two devices are placed in a house or garden. Dozens of civilians have been injured in the past few days, many while returning to their homes.

"I thought it was safe, because some KLA guys had already taken some mines out, and my parents had already walked in," said Ibadete Thaci, 13, from her bed in Pristina hospital. But as she came out of the house, she trod on a mine.

She pulled back the sheet to display two bandaged stumps, her right leg amputated above the knee, her left below. "Can I have plastic legs? I'm so worried I won't be able to walk," she said. Reassured that she could surely be fitted with artificial limbs, Ibadete broke out into a broad smile. The hospital has had 14 victims brought in during the past week, but figures are expected to rise and an orthopaedic workshop for amputees is being set up. Ibadete's family has abandoned their home in Lapushnik, just down the road from Negrovce, and is hoping someone with clear the area before they return.

The barracks in Maidstone was yesterday receiving a flood of calls from members of the public, including many pensioners, expressing sympathy and offering financial contributions. They wanted to give something to show their appreciation to the Gurkhas.

Major Andy Edington, the regimental second in command, paid tribute to Lt Evans whom he had come to know well since the young officer joined the engineers' unit straight from Sandhurst last year. His death was a "great loss to the military", said Major Edington.

"He was a super bloke who loved working with his Gurkhas. He was a fine officer who will be greatly missed by all his colleagues and friends," he added. "It is always very sad when anybody dies, but when it is somebody you knew socially it brings it that much closer to home."