Burnt-out Serbs driven into exodus from Kosovo

Five years of efforts at reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs following the savageries of their internecine war have been destroyed in three days of murderous violence here in Kosovo.

Five years of efforts at reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs following the savageries of their internecine war have been destroyed in three days of murderous violence here in Kosovo.

By yesterday morning, as Nato reinforcements poured in, the Serbian population had been "cleansed" from their enclaves in the former Yugoslav province, and were huddled into refugee camps in military barracks. Also yesterday came signs of a concerted Serbian backlash within Kosovo, with reports of Albanian homes being burnt in the north by mobs reinforced by contingents from across the border, many of whom apparently boasted of destroying mosques in Serbia.

Evidence of further slippage towards lawlessness came with attacks on multinational peacekeepers from both sides. The majority of them seemed to come from Albanians who, not so long ago, were lauding Nato as their liberators from Slobodan Milosevic's Belgrade regime. Michael McClellan, of the US office in Pristina, said: "American troops were attacked by Albanians - this has never been heard of before."

The death toll so far is 31, with more than 600 reported injured, 100 of these being policemen and 60 of them members of the international Kosovo Force (KFor). Around 130 properties were ransacked, and 20 churches went up in flames. Serbian leader Vojislav Kostunica, who will soon face internal elections that will have a fiercely nationalist tinge, expressed his disquiet at the failure to protect Kosovo's 100,000 remaining Serbs.

The full extent of the Serbian internal exodus is now clear. They have either fled, or been evacuated from towns such as Obelic, Staro Gradsko and Svinjare. At Svinjare, Albanian mobs burnt the empty homes and drove cattle and pigs into the flames. Nuns at an isolated monastery in Devic, in the north, were flown out by Nato helicopters as a mob was closing in.

At Lipljan, peacekeepers were overseeing the evacuation of 200 children and elderly people. The rest of the population had taken refuge in a Finnish KFor base, as the troops drove back Albanian youths attempting to attack the local church. The handful of Serbs who had stayed behind, in towns like Caglavica and Gnjilane, were heavily outnumbered by Nato soldiers guarding them.

In Mitrovica, for long a venomous cockpit of ethnic strife, and the town where the present round of troubles started, most of the Serbs had stayed. A series of explosions shook the Albanian quarter of the Serbian-dominated northern bank of the River Ebur. Oliver Ivanovic, a local Serbian leader, claimed the blasts had come from a block of flats from which Albanians had had been shooting from the balconies. "I hope that KFor move them out of here today. Otherwise I fear the Serbs will do that. The latest events show that the project of a united Kosovo has definitely failed," he said.

The UN has now pulled out its staff from the southern, Albanian, area of the town, but a heavy KFor presence appeared to have stopped the violence yesterday. Two check- points into the town, manned by US and French troops with armoured cars, stopped and searched vehicles for weapons, and the bridge over the Ebur, a traditional clashing point between the communities, was sealed off.

A French corporal, strapped into body armour, taking off his sunglasses to wipe his red-rimmed eyes, said: "We got shot at, and we went into a flat and shot dead the sniper. There has been a lot of violence here. They just want to kill each other. It's the Balkans, and they are all mad."

Half a mile away, at the Hotel Adriatik, local Albanians were vehemently protesting that they were neither mad or bad. Their heated views reflected not only the endemic antipathy towards the Serbs, but also a resentment that has grown over the last two years against UNMik, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

The Albanians say the Serbs started everything by chasing three young boys into the Ebur, resulting in the deaths of two. The Serbs say it was started by the drive-by shooting of a Serbian youth by Albanians. According to the Albanians in Mitrovica, the Serbs are also trying to recolonise Kosovo, hoarding guns, failing to pay taxes ...

At Obilic all the Serbs have been chased out, and the local church burnt. Some had been driven from a block of flats right next to a police station with 60 officers, seven of them international instructors. Sergeant Jean Philippe Stephan, seconded from the French police, shrugged: "There was nothing we could do, except evacuate them. We made a security cordon and got the Serbs inside it. Then KFor came and took them out ... There are no Serbs left in Obilic now, and I cannot see them coming back."

There is a feeling among many Albanians, especially those who fought in the rebellion against Belgrade, that Kosovo has not received its just rewards. The UN has insisted that every effort must be made to re-absorb the Serbs who fled after the war. Some had returned, and been given jobs in international organisations which has translated into signs of favouritism.

The Kosovo Liberation Army, Washington's protégés during the war, reinvented as the Kosovo Democratic Party, said the Serbs "don't want to integrate in Kosovar society. Even five years after the war, their will remains the same - the will for violence against the Albanians."

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