Paras face murder probe

The account of the British troops who shot up a car full of young Albanian men is now being challenged point by point

BRITISH PARATROOPERS may face murder charges in Kosovo for riddling a carload of young Albanian men with gunfire eight days ago. A decision on charges will be made by Kosovan prosecutors appointed by the United Nations mission in Kosovo.

The incident, which left two KLA fighters dead and two Albanian civilians seriously wounded, has caused anger in the capital, Pristina, and undermined goodwill towards Nato forces. The official version says a patrol from 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, opened fire because they believed their lives were being endangered by celebratory firing into the air by a man on the car roof. The Paras were said to have been protecting frightened Serbian civilians sheltering in a nearby building.

But witnesses and survivors of the shooting cast doubt on this. The Independent on Sunday found the British soldiers actively pursued the car, which was moving away from them, and from the frightened Serbian civilians, when the fatal shots were fired. Witnesses said a man on its roof was firing vertically at the time, but similar "happy firing" had been going on for hours with the acquiescence and even encouragement of British soldiers on patrol.

No apparent attempt was made to stop the car or peacefully to disarm the Kosovars, none of whom was in uniform, they said. In the atmosphere of noisy celebration, the warning shots fired by the Paras were not heard by the men in the car. And, rather than simply taking out the single man firing the weapon, the soldiers sprayed the car. "They were shot through the back without knowing what hit them," said an Albanian woman who saw the killings. "No question about it: this was an execution."

The tragedy happened early last Saturday after three hours of jubilant celebration in Pristina. The previous day was the ninth anniversary of Kosovan Albanians' "declaration of independence", a refusal to acknowledge the authority of Serbia. "It was the first time we had been able to celebrate that day, and it was a sign of our freedom," said 24-year-old survivor Naser Bici, who was driving.

The celebrations started at 9pm as thousands of young Albanians gathered in the city centre, drinking, dancing and chanting independence slogans. For hours, there were constant bursts of automatic fire as KLA youths triggered AK-47s into the air, in breach of the disarmament agreement between Nato K-For troops and the KLA. "We passed lots of patrols before, and we didn't have any trouble with the soldiers," said Naser. "They celebrated with us."

Shortly before midnight, Naser drove with his 19-year-old brother, Fahri, their cousins, Driton, Skender and Muhamet Bici, and a friend, Avni Dudi, along the dual carriageway called Ramiz Sadiku, close to the former Serb Executive Council building where some 50 Serbs were sheltering. One report said the Paras who opened fire were accompanying a senior Parachute Regiment officer visiting Serbian leaders.

A senior Nato source said last week: "If these Serbs had been killed by the Albanians, then you ... would all be complaining that we weren't doing our job. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't." But a reconstruction of the event could suggest the Paras may have created a violent incident.

The Astra had driven past the building repeatedly, with Fahri Bici sitting on the roof firing into the air, without any reaction from the Paras. Shortly after midnight it turned round for a fourth time and weaved through the crowds on Ramiz Sadiku. Naser Bici picked up another cousin, Isak Berisha, and continued south, in the opposite direction from the Serb Executive Council building.

Suddenly, three Paras began running through the crowds toward the centre of the junction. An American journalist, who asked not to be identified, was sitting on a car parked nearby. "I saw the boy with the gun firing from the top of the roof, and then I saw him fall back," he said. "It was noisy, it was dark, the streets were unlit. There was no way they could know what was going on." The official press release speaks of "aimed shots" fired at the vehicle. But it is clear the car was sprayed with heavy fire. Young Isak Berisha had been in the car for little more than a minute when three bullets passed through his leg, one through his arm, and one through his back, where a sixth bullet remains, pending further surgery. Avni Dudi died in hospital. The youth on the car roof, Fahri Bici, died almost immediately. Muhamet Bici survives, but he lost his lower jaw and part of his upper lip.

In the chaotic aftermath, British troops surrounded the vehicle and sealed off the road. "People were trying to help the boys, and some KLA guys were trying to calm their people down and keep order," said the American journalist. "But the soldiers were being aggressive, pointing their guns in people's faces, and saying, `Get back or I'll shoot your f---ing head off!'"

The Special Investigations Bureau (SIB), the military CID, has started a murder investigation, but this could take months.

For the friends and relatives of the dead men, the wait is agonising. In Albanian Muslim tradition, funerals should take place within 24 hours, but the families of Fahri Bici and Avni Dudi have not been able even to see the bodies of their two sons, which are being kept by K-For, awaiting autopsy by a British pathologist.

"If this was not murder I don't know what else to call it," said Fahri's uncle, Sabit Bici. "And now, with the waiting, they are killing all of us every day."

The Para spokesman could not be reached for comment, but Major Jan Joosten of K-For said the soldiers "felt their lives were in danger and they had the right to defend themselves. They behaved very well and very professionally as well-trained soldiers." But one Para was overheard to remark: "This was not minimal force, was it?"

KLA leaders emphasise their gratitude to Nato for the liberation and express as much sadness as anger over the shooting. "We don't look at them as enemies, we look on each of them as one of us," said Potera Ajet, commander of the dead men. "But when I think of all the battles I have been through with these two, it is a great tragedy they should have been killed on a day of celebration like this."

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