Kosovo Reckoning: Blair flies into Pristina for talks and a hero's welcome

TONY BLAIR was due to arrive in Kosovo last night for his first visit since the liberation of the province, bearing the promise of a new "Marshall Aid" plan of economic regeneration for the region.

The Prime Minister was to travel on to Pristina following the Balkan stability summit of 39 states and 17 international organisations in Sarajevo.

He was scheduled to meet General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Kosovo force, and some of his soldiers, and to hold talks with Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations administrator for Kosovo.

After the meetings, Mr Blair was planning to fly to Macedonia and return today to hold a series of talks with Hashim Thaci, the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, his political rival Ibrahim Rugova, who returned to the province yesterday, and leaders of the Serbian community.

The Prime Minister is also expected to meet the people during a walkabout in the centre of Pristina and at a ceremonial tree planting.

He can be certain of a rapturous reception from the Kosovo Albanians who regard him as being responsible, more than any other Western leader, for delivering them from the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Among the Kosovar intelligentsia, Mr Blair is also seen as someone who can resolve an increasingly fractious, tense and violent situation in the province.

Mr Rugova, vilified by the KLA for his relative moderation in dealing with the Serbs, stayed away for six weeks in self-imposed exile after the Nato entry into Kosovo because, it is said, he feared for his safety.

His return, on the same day that Mr Blair arrives, is seen as a British diplomatic triumph and provides an alternative focus for those Kosovars who are increasingly apprehensive about the activities of the KLA and their supporters. Yesterday afternoon, Mr Rugova was said to be still worried about his safety, and was locked in talks with British diplomats.

The KLA, which has signed a demilitarisation agreement with Nato, has been accused of intimidating not only Serbs but also, on occasions, Albanian political opponents.

There is a perception in Pristina that Mr Thaci and his party had been "adopted" by the US as heir apparents in Kosovo. His relationship with the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who was in Kosovo on Thursday, is said to be particularly close. A leading Albanian academic said: "What is happening here is unhealthy. The KLA has been allowed to become the dominant players, and a lot of political figures are frankly afraid of them. They boast about their American connections. We needed Rugova to return and if the British have persuaded him to do so, it's very good."

The Serbs too, it is felt, would welcome the reassurance of Mr Blair. About 100,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army, leaving about 30,000 behind, vulnerable to Albanian attacks.

Britain's chief of defence staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, said that although the KLA appeared to be abiding generally by the peace agreement there were grounds for concern.

"Some members of the KLA still have weapons and still have the capacity to damage the peace process," he said. "A very small minority still have a capacity to cause trouble, kill people in their homes and strike fear into the hearts of some of the Serbs."

Lieutenant Alasdair Truett, of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, leading a team guarding a Serbian residential area near the university said: "Most of the teaching staff, the professors and their families, have gone off to Serbia. There are about six families left now.

"The scale of what's happening ranges from young Albanians jeering and insulting Serbs to kidnappings and murders. There is systematic looting and attempts to take over Serb property. We are being in confrontation with men who claim to be KLA. If they're illegally armed we disarm them."

One of those who had stayed behind in the area is Professor Vojislav Trajkovic, director of the neuro-psychology centre.

Professor Trajkovic said: "My wife Anna and our three children have gone to Belgrade. But I am staying here, I am a Kosovar. I hope the security situation improves, and I think we shall just about survive as long as Nato are here. If and when they go ..." He drew a finger across his throat.

Three Albanians are still being questioned by Nato in connection with the murder of 14 Serbs from a farming community at Gracko. The Serbs have blamed the KLA for the attack, which the organisation denies.

A graphic example of Serbian atrocities which lie behind the cycle of retribution came yesterday with the revelation of mass graves, said to be the biggest discovered so far.

More than 200 bodies are suspected to be buried at three sites at Cikatovo. The victims are young and old, men and women, and are believed to have been killed elsewhere before their hasty burial.

In the first site there are believed to be about 75 dead; 32 of them have been exhumed. There is a second site believed to hold around 120, and a third with 11.

Heavy rain over the past couple of days has washed away the topsoil from the last area, revealing the corpses.

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