Liberation of Kosovo: Two British soldiers die in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH Army suffered its first casualties of the conflict in Kosovo yesterday when two soldiers were killed while attempting to defuse Nato cluster bombs near a school. Two civilians also died in the explosion and a third was injured.

The soldiers, a Royal Engineer and a member of the Gurkha Field Squadron, were members of a bomb disposal and mine clearing team who had been given over a hundred cluster bombs by local civilians and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army for disposal.

A pile of them went off while the operation to defuse them was taking place. Army sources dismissed reports that the accident was caused by one of the villagers stumbling and falling while delivering some of the bombs in a bag.

The unit, comprising of 36 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers, based at Maidstone, in Kent, and 69 Gurkha Field Squadron arrived at the site of the explosion in the village of Orlate in the Negrovce area, 20 miles west of Pristina, just before the blast took place.

Last night Nato was considering issuing fresh warnings to civilians throughout Kosovo not to touch any unexploded ordnance, of which thousands of pieces remain. Orlate and surrounding areas had been heavily bombed by alliance airplanes because of its strategic position in the middle of several routes used by Serbian armoured columns. It had been one of the priority areas for clearance by Nato.

Last night units of Royal Engineers carried out several controlled explosions in the area and warned local people that there could be other live explosives in the vicinity.

The explosion took place about 100 metres from the elementary school which has been shut for over a year and was due to reopen in a few months time. A small crater was created on a sloping bank along a winding pathway from the back of the school building.

A local KLA commander confirmed that his men, as well as villagers, had collected the cluster bombs and given them to the British soldiers. At least one of the dead is believed to be a KLA member. The two soldiers had not been named last night.

Falid Rexha, a local farmer, said: "We had been waiting for Nato to get here and make the area safe. Over three big bundles of these bombs were collected and taken to them. We all heard the bomb going off, it was a terrible sound."

Commanders had always admitted that one of the most difficult tasks confronting K-For was dealing with landmines and booby-traps. Last night a British Army spokesman said: "This tragic accident underlines the dangers that face K-For troops as we work to create a safe and secure environment for the return of the displaced people of Kosovo."