`Happy fire' leaves two dead

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The Independent Online
THE official version was terse and factual. "Shortly after midnight, a white Astra car drove past the building," ran the press release from the British forces in Kosovo. "Three soldiers, believing their lives to be in danger, fired aimed shots at the vehicle. One person was confirmed dead at the scene, three others were wounded, and conveyed to hospital by Britfor where one regrettably later died."

But the event it describes was a little more troubling. Early yesterday hundreds of jubilant Kosovo Albanians took to the streets to celebrate the anniversary of their declaration of independence from Yugoslavia on 2 July 1991. By the end of the night two of them were dead, killed by their own liberators.

According to Laura Kajtazi, our interpreter (pictured above left) who witnessed the shooting, the car was carrying seven men, two sitting on the roof and firing at least one AK-47 into the air, in what is known as "happy fire". Three British paratroopers entered the street and fired at least one warning shot - which the gunmen didn't seem to hear, because of the noise of shooting and the blare of car horns.

"The guy did not pay much attention - he didn't even turn his head - and after a few seconds, they just shot him in the back," she said yesterday, after hours of interviews with the British military police investigating the incident.

Skender Bici, 19, a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army and aide to a local commander, was killed instantly. At Pristina hospital in the early hours of Saturday morning, a British soldier helped a hospital orderly to carry Muhamed Bici up the stairs on a green stretcher. His eyes were open, blinking, his breath rasping. But his lower jaw was shot away, and by yesterday morning he was also dead.

"I'm not going to argue with the decision made by the soldiers on the ground," Major Jan Joosten, the Nato spokesman, said yesterday. "They 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." Another Western observer said yesterday: "It is bloody stupid to go round firing automatic weapons in front of an army patrol."

But Britfor could not say if the soldiers had been briefed on the likelihood of a boisterous celebration and how to react to happy shooting. "Too much is being put on to K-For," a spokesman for Amnesty International said. "They are having to do more than normal soldiers do."