JUBILANT KOSOVO Liberation Army fighters took control of this southern Kosovo town yesterday, setting up checkpoints and firing in the air in defiance of confused German troops. With Serb forces gone under the deal with Nato, the Germans are supposed to be in charge of southern Kosovo but they were at an obvious loss as to how to deal with the heavily armed fighters.
Some of the KLA men, and women, emerged from thin air, apparently residents who had been underground and suddenly donned their uniforms. Others came down from the mountains with the first returning "mountain people," tens of thousands of refugees who had fled as Serb forces torched their homes.
All were greeted as conquering heroes by men, women and children lining the streets of Prizren shouting "UCK", the group's initials in Albanian, and giving the victory sign. Some of the fighters rode on the bonnets or roofs of cars, waving their flags like football fans.
The fighters put their flags everywhere, including on the towering minarets of the town's mosques, while German troops looked on from Leopard tanks or armoured troop carriers. The Germans appeared reluctant to patrol the town on foot after Sunday's apparent suicide bombing and shooting attempt against them. "We control Prizren. We will be the new administration," said a KLA commander. "We are showing the way for all of Kosovo."
That was not part of the Nato-Yugoslav peace deal, at least openly, but the German forces did not appear inclined to try to disarm the fighters. "The Germans are controlling this town," said a German Army press officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dietmar Jesserich, adding that German soldiers had disarmed KLA fighters who tried to remove three wounded Serb soldiers from the hospital here on Monday night.
But armed KLA fighters lounged around the carpark of the Germans' base here and KLA men flagged us down several times on our way back from the German press briefing.
Meanwhile, the first "mountain people" began their long descent home as word spread that Serb forces, and civilians, had been forced out of Kosovo. After a two-hour drive in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then a long hike, I ran into the first family to come down from the 6,000-foot Gralisht mountains. They were 10 members of the Krasniqi family from the village of Reshtan, near Suhareke, who had seen their home set alight by Serb police when they first fled to the hills almost three months ago.
In the back of their tractor trailer Nazliye Krasniqi held a tiny bundle, her week-old son Kenan, born in a mountain cave last Tuesday while Serbs were shelling the area in the hope of hitting the refugees. The reports of tens, possibly even several hundred thousand Kosovars hiding in the mountains began to appear credible as we reached, with the help of a KLA guide, a barn housing 53 people.
They were the Ukaj family, from the village of Gorishe, outside Prizren, whose home had been burnt out by the Serbs because one of the family, Abbas, was a KLA fighter. Abbas, our guide, pushed his AK-47 rifle behind his back to greet his wife, four children and other family members including his grandfather, 84-year-old Idriz Ukaj. He knew they were there - he had led them there - but he had not seen them for weeks and feared for their lives when he saw the Serbs shelling the mountains.
They told us there were thousands of people like them on different mountainsides above their villages, fed by KLA fighters who reached them by tractor, then on foot. We could see several large encampments on distant mountains where the refugees thought they were safe until the Serbs began shelling them.
The Ukaj family insisted we see the cave they had huddled in during the day for almost three months, coming down to the barn - a byre and storage shed - occasionally to sleep on straw whenever the Serbs stopped shelling. That was not often, they said, showing us the shell and mortar holes and craters in and around the barn.
Despite the 60-degree slope on a muddy path, and his 84 years, Idriz Ukaj, wearing the traditional white cap of the ethnic Albanians, climbed to the cave like a mountain goat.
"We know our house is only a burnt-out shell. But we'd rather live there than here now we think it's safe," said Hyra Ukaj, Abbas's sister-in-law. "But we're not 100 per cent sure. We will always be afraid the Serbs may come back."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies