Peace in the Balkans: While Nato squabbles and the Serbs flee, anarchy fills Kosovo's vacuum

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SO, Wag the Dog was a documentary. "The Russians are coming," a Yugoslav army captain announced to the coffee- drinkers on the Corso yesterday. They roared in delight and disbelief. But it was quite beyond their comprehension that Nato forces would delay their own entry into Kosovo over an infantile squabble about whose soldiers should cross the frontier first. And it was, of course, the innocent who had to pay the price for this farce.

Outside the Catholic church, an Albanian priest shook his head in disbelief. "Why hasn't Nato come?" he pleaded. "Things here are very, very bad." On the other side of the hill, a clutch of Albanian homes were smouldering. And in the streets of Pristina yesterday there were too many men with guns. One of them walked into the restaurant of the Grand Hotel on Thursday night and threatened to kill the diners. A hundred KLA captives were seen wandering through the city, still dressed in their black prison uniforms. And the roads around Kosovo's capital were lined with civilian cars as the Serbs of Prizren and Djakovica - trusting in a KLA ceasefire - abandoned their cities for northern Serbia.

"It's what Nato wants," Yugoslav volunteer Private Stefan said with contempt when I came across him near the Army Club. "They are delaying so that the Serbs will leave and give them an Albanian-only Kosovo. Nato is `cleansing' us with their delays." Did I have the nerve to explain that no, really, General Clark and General "Mike" were arguing like children about who goes first? I murmured something I'd heard on the BBC about "logistics difficulties" and Pte Stefan snorted with contempt.

Yet as Nato hesitated - only to find the Russians stealing their thunder - Kosovo was moving towards just the kind of anarchy Nato had promised to prevent. When I drove the road north to Merdare yesterday, the villages were burning - either Serb homes set alight by their departing owners or Albanian property destroyed by Serb gunmen - while the Third Army's withdrawal sucked thousands of panic-stricken civilians into its wake.

The old city of Prizren is almost entirely empty of its Serb inhabitants - almost every car I saw bore a Prizren or Djakovica number-plate - while the Serb citizens of Pristina are turning with bitterness against their own leaders. At a meeting of civilians called to halt the exodus, a tall man in spectacles screamed at his fellow Serbs: "You've been fucked by Tito and by Milosevic - may their descendants have bone cancer for 12 generations."

Meanwhile, along the highway out of Pristina appeared the kind of men we had hoped not to see. There were tall militiamen with long hair, and gunmen in black shirts, and even the departing Yugoslav troops now displayed an unhappy combination of regular soldiers in army uniform and bearded men in military vehicles with slouch hats or cloths wound round their heads.

One soldier was waving a beer bottle in the air. Several were driving tractors among the army convoys, pulling trailers covered with tarpaulins. Who, I wonder, owned the tractors?

The convoys themselves were a Boy's Own of Russian weaponry - BMP armoured vehicles tracked radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and batteries of white- tipped Sam-6 missiles along with Frog ground-to-ground rockets. And yet again, not a single one had been scratched by Nato bombs. Some of the Sam-6 racks were empty - the missiles must have been fired at Nato planes - and many of them were still covered with the branches of the fir trees with which they had been camouflaged during the war. Several guns had been draped with flowers, one anti-aircraft battery sprouting dark red roses from its barrels.

But while the Serbs enjoyed Moscow's temerity in tweaking Nato's ego, they waited in vain for the Russians to show up. It mattered little to the families driving north, towing trailers piled with sitting-room furniture and beds. Over the highway a new banner has been raised. "The only road is the road to Kosovo," it says. But yesterday the only road was the road out of Kosovo - and the Serbs were using it to flee the land in which they have lived for generations.