War in the Balkans: Albania - Villagers on border flee friendly fire

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The Independent Online
GIVEN THE long list of Nato's errors during the Kosovo air campaign, perhaps we should not have been surprised. But this could hardly have been a mistake. When Nato warplanes bombed us yesterday, well inside Albania, not in Kosovo, it was broad daylight.

They could surely see a couple of dozen journalists, a few hundred frontline Albanian troops, the Albanian border police and the villagers of Morini. We could certainly see them.

We had, after all, been based in more or less the same area for weeks, interviewing Kosovo refugees and, more recently, watching cross-border skirmishes between the Serbs and KLA fighters.

But still they dropped their bombs, five as we fled. And now we know how the Serb soldiers must feel: scared and lucky to be in one piece.

No injuries were reported in Morini, a picturesque hillside spot. But the attack, and another Nato raid on Albanian territory hours earlier, left Serb forces in control of a crucial crossing point on the Albanian- Kosovo border.

Albanian troops raced from the border on lorries as the attack started at 2.20pm. Border police and customs officers jumped into their vans and headed for the hills, yelling at us to do the same. And hundreds of villagers and shepherds packed on to tractor trailers or ran towards the nearby town of Kukes.

No one could understand why the warplanes, glinting in the sun as they roared towards us up the Lake Fierze valley, were bombing territory on this side of the frontier.

Adding to the chaos, the Albanians even opened up briefly with an ageing anti-aircraft gun, vainly trying to down planes from the same countries whose soldiers patrol the streets of Kukes.

We later saw dozens of Kosovo Albanian men, recently released from prison in Kosovo, walk across the deserted border into Albania and join the desperate flight to Kukes, 16 miles away.

United Nations buses and aid workers fled as soon as the bombing began.

Had the Nato planes merely hit Albanian territory once or twice, it might have been described as a mistake. But the alliance unloaded a total of 32 bombs or missiles on this village before dawn, then followed up with the five bombs in the afternoon.

The confusion began after 9pm on Monday when Serb troops in Vermiza, just across the border, fired 16 rockets at an Albanian tank column in Bardhoc, about two miles inside Albania.

Eight Russian-made Katyhusha rockets exploded within 50 to 100 yards of the tanks though none was hit. The Albanians did not return fire, but the tank column was among Albanian units that fired live shells from Bardhoc on to Serb positions last week.

The other eight Katyhushas exploded above Bardhoc, unleashing booby- trapped packages that looked like toys, sweets or flowers and were clearly intended to maim any child that picked them up. The Serbs may have wanted to show Nato that they had survived Monday's heavy bombing of Vermiza, or they may have been trying to draw the Albanians on.

A few hours later, we were all asleep in Kukes when we heard the first Nato bombs. When we got to Morini after dawn, Albanian soldiers, border police and villagers asked us what Nato was up to. The planes appeared to have selected a dozen stone bunkers built by Albania's Cold War communists. The bombs destroyed half a dozen of the bunkers, which were not manned but were said to hold ammunition.

We found remnants of the bombs, marked "For use on MK-82, Fin-guided bomb" and carrying assembly numbers.

Photographers were still taking pictures of that damage when the Nato planes swooped down again in the afternoon. There was an almighty roar, too loud to be a plane, then the first bomb hit. The following impacts, at intervals of three or four minutes, appeared to chase the fleeing media vehicles up the road. We retreated to hillside vantage points and saw the Nato jets bomb the now-vacated Albanian customs building where, until last week's combat, we used to interview incoming refugees.

Then the Serbs, again apparently to show us that their guns were still in business, began firing mortar or artillery shells from Vermiza towards a hill on the other side of the lake where KLA fighters are known to operate.