Kosovo's gypsies bear brunt of Albanian hate

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The Independent Online
CAUGHT BETWEEN the devil and the deep blue sea, it was the sea that finally claimed them.

The devil was the Kosovo conflict and the hatred now unleashed by Albanians on eastern Europe's traditional victims, the Roma gypsies. The sea was the Adriatic, that narrow stretch of water between the Yugoslav coastline and southern Italy. Once crossed, many Roma refugees believe, the sea heralds the start of a new life.

But the bodies of 17 gypsies were found floating after a ship smuggling people to Italy sank, the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti reported yesterday. They died trying to reach Italy, the nearest western country.

Gypsies, like Serbs, have become the new victims in Yugoslavia, the target of revenge attacks by returning Albanian refugees in Kosovo. They are seen by Albanians as collaborators for failing to join the fight against Serb forces and for being allowed to stay by the Serbs while their Albanian neighbours were ethnically cleansed.

The gypsies are also accused of looting Albanian properties, but say they are being persecuted because they are one of the last nations in post-Communist eastern Europe to be denied a state, or even an autonomous region of their own.

Whatever the cause, the hatred of them in Kosovo is almost palpable. Relief workers in a refugee camp had to prevent a gypsy family from being set upon by a mob of Albanians.

The unnamed vessel sank on Friday about 30 miles off the Yugoslav coast. A ship rescued 69 refugees. On several occasions, Italian border guards have intercepted hundreds of gypsies trying to flee attacks by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Montenegrin naval police and divers began retrieving bodies on Sunday, the newspaper said, adding that the accident was connected with an organised crime network for smuggling Kosovo refugees into Italy.

It said smugglers charge $1,100 (pounds 690) for each adult and up to $550 for children depending on age. Italy has said it will no longer consider immigrants from Yugoslavia as refugees, but as illegals.

The most popular routes out are by speedboat from the Montenegrin or Albanian coasts to the foot of Italy, or by land through Serbia or Romania and on to Hungary and Austria and into Western Europe.

Meanwhile in Kosovo, Nato's credibility took a blow as the commander of Russia's paratroop forces said his peacekeepers would try again today to enter the town of Orahovac after Russian K-For troops were turned back at an Albanian road-block yesterday. "There is no problem here. We didn't get through today - we'll get through tomorrow," Interfax quoted Georgy Shpak in Moscow.

The Russians were kept outside Orahovac by locals who blocked the road with cars, trucks and tractors. The incident, one of the most serious examples of mass protest in Kosovo since K-For's arrival, highlights the difficulty integrating Russian troops into Nato's operation.