The gruesome tide turns

Now it is the Serbs who have been rounded-up and shot in the worst massacre since Nato entered Kosovo, writes Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent Online
THE WOMEN clad in black walked up and down the main street, their cries piercing in the hot morning.

About a mile away in the cornfields on the edge of the village of Gracko, British investigators searched for any clues as to the perpetrators of the worst atrocity since the liberation of Kosovo two months ago.

There had been 14 bodies in all, among them that of a teenage boy. Thirteen had been found lying around their combine-harvester, the engine of which was still running. Another was found a little way away, left close to his tractor. All the victims were Serbs and they had all been shot at close range.

"They were all killed in a most horrible and gruesome manner," said Major Ian Seraph of the British Army Rapid Reaction force, which rushed to the scene.

"About five minutes later they found another man's body on top of a tractor."

The death squad - almost certainly renegade members of the Kosovo Liberation Army - came to Gracko, south of Pristina, late on Friday night when the men of the village were finishing their day's work harvesting wheat. The British Army patrol that had been in the vicinity heard the sound of automatic fire and rushed to the scene where they found the bodies scattered in the field.

Exactly who killed the Serbs is not clear, although the villagers were convinced they knew. Ljubica Zivic, a stooping grandmother whose two sons were killed in the massacre, and other villagers berated the KFor forces for not protecting them against the "Albanian terrorists".

But, for KFor, finding out who was responsible may not be as important as dealing with the effect the killings have had, almost certainly designed to have had: spreading fear among those Serbs who remain in Kosovo and stemming the return of others.

Ever since Nato forces entered Kosovo last month, one of the biggest challenges it has faced has been trying to convince the remaining Serbs that they will be protected against reprisal attacks from returning Albanians. It is a challenge in which, despite its best intentions, KFor has largely failed.

While it has been reasonably successful in convincing the Kosovo Liberation Army to give up its arms, the past two months has seen a wave of revenge killings as well as the looting and burning of Serb homes and property. The reprisals sent thousands of Serbs fleeing for either Serbia or Montenegro from which only a trickle have returned.

This latest attack - the biggest atrocity since Nato took control and which is certain to further undermine the confidence of the Serbs - happened in a predominately Serb village which is surrounded by rural Albanian communities.

Until Friday night there had been no reports of violence in the village, leading Major Seraph to suggest the killing was the work of outsiders.

"This village has been peaceful. A couple of Albanian families live here but there has been no previous tension," he said.

In Pristina, the Kosovo capital, the new UN transitional administrator of Kosovo, the former French minister Bernard Kouchner, denounced the massacre as an "inhumane and senseless" act and said the gunmen would be apprehended and punished.

"All Kosovans who are concerned about the future of this land and its people should reject such cowardly and wanton acts of violence," Mr Kouchner said.

"I appeal once again to the leaders of the people of Kosovo to join together with the international community to establish the rule of law in Kosovo."

Some observers believe the killings were the work of Albanian guerrillas who have refused to agree to the weapons decommissioning agreed between the KLA and KFor.

Yesterday the KLA insisted none of its units were responsible for the killings. "I personally, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, strongly condemn what happened last night," said General Agim Ceku, one of the KLA's senior generals who hosted a press conference in Pristina yesterday with KFor commander, General Sir Mike Jackson.

"We still don't know who carried out that act. We sincerely believe that these people have nothing to do with the KLA. What is certain is that those responsible do not wish any good on the KLA."

And amid a flurry of words designed to try and ease the tension, Gen Jackson said he was adamant that the killers would be caught and punished. Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana also said it was vital the killers be found.

"I appeal to all inhabitants in Kosovo, regardless of ethnic background, not to resort to violence, revenge or more bloodshed," he said.

"I ask all the political leaders of Kosovo to actively pursue the path of reconciliation. KFor is deployed in Kosovo to protect all ethnic groups. Serbs should not leave; those who have done so should be able to return."

But both Nato and KFor realise all too well that it is easier to make such worthy claims than to actually provide the on-the-ground security that could make such promises sound plausible.

And if they needed something else to further unsettle the situation, a senior Yugoslav general in Belgrade had the front to accuse Nato of creating a "security vacuum" in Kosovo.

"If the UN forces do not take measures to protect the Serb population in Kosovo ... we can open the question in the [UN] Security Council of their withdrawal from Kosovo," said Gen Nebojsa Pavkovic in an interview published in the government-controlled daily newspaper Politika.

"Then finally we can send our forces to ensure the normal functioning of state bodies."