Liberation of Kosovo: New frontline - Danger lurks on road to land of Arkan

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS THE Serbian graffiti on a concrete overpass spanning the road north from Podujevo should have been a clue. "Arkan is my man," it said.

Since Zeljko Raznatovic - "Arkan" - has been indicted as a war criminal for the activities of his murderous Serb militia, and anywhere else in Kosovo such a slogan would be obliterated by Kosovo Liberation Army propaganda, we ought to have realised that once past the bridge we were in Serbia proper.

We knew the Serbian border was close to Podujevo, and stopped to check with a man scything his field in the shimmering heat. "There are two British armoured vehicles just past the bend," he said, "and then some more on the border."

We thanked him and went on, past the British armour, under the bridge and, as we later discovered, into Slobodan Milosevic country.

Just outside Kosovo, the road dips down into a river valley, with cool wooded slopes on both sides. We passed a ruined Serbian Orthodox church, although grass growing on the walls told us this was not a casualty of the recent conflict. But the flowers on the graves were fresh, and in retrospect that was significant.

The first doubts set in when we came upon two armoured vehicles of an unfamiliar shape and grey-green colour. Although clearly visible from the road, they were camouflaged from eyes above with branches and netting. Knocked out in the war, we assumed, and carried on, looking for the second set of British vehicles.

Although fewer and fewer people were about, there was a trickle of loaded Serbian cars heading north and the odd civilian vehicle coming the opposite way. It was much more peaceful than Pristina, where before setting out we had watched two more houses, once occupied by gypsies, burn down.

But then, just as the road reached the bottom of the valley, there was a giant Serbian tricolour flying from one house and a helmeted soldier with a Yugoslav army badge snoozing outside another. A third armoured vehicle was hidden behind the house. We made a hasty return up the valley to what we learnt was the forwardmost Nato armour in Kosovo, a Scimitar of the King's Royal Hussars. Its commander, Cpl Alan Sheppard, showed us the border on his map. In that case, we said, we had seen at least two Serbian armoured vehicles well inside the five-kilometre exclusion zone agreed at the war's end, and pointed out their location.

Shouldn't there be some sign on the road to indicate where Kosovo ended and Serbia began, we asked? "Our policy is that it's a free road," said Cpl Sheppard. "Our orders are only to stop Serbian or Russian military vehicles coming in." But the Russians have a bridgehead at Slatina air base near Pristina, and one of their aircraft flew overhead on the approach, spraying out flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles. Who did they expect to fire them? Nato? The Serbs? Or the KLA?

The somnolence of Cpl Sheppard's outpost was suddenly dispelled as a convoy of white vans with the letters "TV" spelt out in tape sped past, escorted by British Land Rovers. "It's Serbian journalists from Radio TV Pristina," he said. "We had word about them a few minutes ago."

It later emerged that former Albanian employees of the station, notorious for its pro-Milosevic propaganda, had gone to demand their jobs back, leading to the rapid departure of the Serbian journalists. Perhaps they read the Arkan graffiti on the overpass and realised they were home at last.