Serbs flee murders, intimidation in Kosovo town
ZITINJE, Yugoslavia, Aug 1 (AFP) - The entire Serb population of this southeastern town packed what belongings they could and fled Kosovo Sunday after weeks of intimidation and violence, US peacekeepers said.
A convoy of 60 cars, tractors and trailers, heavily weighed down by passengers and belongings, was seen moving out of the town towards the border with the rest of Serbia with an escort of US military Humvee four-wheel drive vehicles and two Apache attack helicopters.
Zitinje's total Serb population of 450 was in the convoy, said a soldier observing the exodus. The town's ethnic Albanian population numbers 650.
Since the entry of KFOR peacekeeping troops into Kosovo on June 12, the province's Serb population has dropped from 150,000 to an estimated 30,000 despite appeals from western officials for the Serbs to stay.
Several of the US Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers based here said Zitinje's Serbs had been the victims of several violent incidents and intimidation, the most recent of which was on Friday when a grenade was thrown at a Serb property and a gunfight broke out between inhabitants.
But the act which pushed the Serbs -- almost all of whom were farmers -- to run away was a roadside ambush a week ago of a Serb couple living in the town. The couple, a 38-year-old woman and a 26-year-old man, were shot dead as they drove home at night.
It was the first time such a mass departure had happened in the area, but the KFOR soldiers knew from experience elsewhere in Kosovo that widespread looting and the torching of the deserted houses would quickly follow.
In a bid to head that off, the KFOR commander of Zitinje, Lieutenant Ryan Leigh, ordered a general night-time curfew in the region to be extended.
A group of 10 ethnic Albanians who had been caught redhanded, stealing from the Serb houses were being held in a KFOR truck with their hands tied behind their back. At least two of them had been found with firearms on them.
KFOR patrols quickly spread out into the town to prevent further looting and a number of tanks were brought in to seal off roads leading into and out of the Serbian quarter.
The sound of gunfire was heard as the US soldiers moved in, but there was no report of any casualties.
Another group of looters -- including three children -- was seen surrendering to soldiers after a brief chase. Ryan said they would all probably be released soon, after their bounty was confiscated.
An ethnic Albanian family stepped out of their gate as a squad of soldiers moved down their street. One of them, who gave his name only as Nebi, told AFP he would have nothing to do with the looting.
But, he asked anxiously, what would become of their Serb neighbours' cows which had been tied up without food or water?
The squadron leader, Sergeant Karl Wurzbach told him the animals would probably be divided up among the remaining residents in the town later in the day.
From Serb house to Serb house, the scene was the same: an obviously hasty departure, and cows and pigs left loose to wander the streets.
Some of the US soldiers in the town were heard joking that maybe they could carry the pigs off to their camp kitchens because of the aversion of ethnic Albanians -- who are Moslems -- to the animals.
Overall, though, the KFOR officers said privately they were at a loss as to what measures they could take.
"All the Serb houses will be burnt within two weeks, starting tonight," said one.
"There's not a lot we can do."
U.S. Army Firepower Escorts Kosovo Serbs Into Exile
11:53 a.m. Aug 01, 1999 Eastern
By Mark Heinrich
RADIVOJCE, Serbia (Reuters) - U.S. army helicopters roared overhead and troops lined a Kosovo roadside Sunday to keep ethnic Albanians from attacking a wretched convoy of Serb villagers rolling into exile.
As the last few hundred Serbs from the village of Zitinje set off in cars and tractors loaded down with household goods, U.S. peacekeepers confined ethnic Albanian neighbors to their homes to ensure the convoy departed safely.
Turning onto the main road east toward the provincial border with the rest of Serbia, the Serbs picked up an escort that deterred the gauntlet of Albanians awaiting them from doing anything more than hurl abuse and the odd stone.
Kosovo's southeast, the quietest sector during a 16-month conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Yugoslav Serb security forces, has been busier than the U.S. troops assigned to control it by NATO might have bargained for.
With a number of ethnically mixed villages and scattered Serb enclaves, the southeast has had no shortage of abductions, murders and house burnings.
Sunday, the U.S. army went to elaborate lengths to preempt any incident that might furnish more grist to Belgrade's propaganda mill which has accused NATO of abjectly failing to protect Kosovo's dwindling Serb community.
Two Blackhawk helicopters clattered back and forth and a U.S. platoon with tanks, tracked armored combat vehicles and Humvee all-terrain jeeps mounted with heavy machineguns deployed along the road taken by the Serbs.
Helmeted soldiers with automatic weapons kept back scruffy villagers who had collected on the roadside through the village of Radivojce from daybreak after receiving word of the convoy.
``We're waiting here to see if the things they looted from our homes after we were kicked out by paramilitary thugs during the war will pass by our very eyes,'' said Daut Devaja, 40, a farmer, an hour before the convoy appeared.
``If I see my tractor or my car, or the computer they threw down my well, going by, I will stop the convoy and grab them,'' he told Reuters with bravado.
Most in the crowd knew that the Americans were there to make sure nothing of the sort transpired. But that did not put the locals off the Americans.
They chanted ``USA, USA'' and ``NATO, NATO'' throughout the morning as bucolic Radivojce swiftly transformed into an American armed camp.
Americans are idolized by Kosovo Albanians for having led NATO bombings that hammered the Yugoslav military machine into halting a bloody rampage against the 90 percent majority population and evacuating the province six weeks ago.
When the convoy of around 150 cars and tractors interspersed with Humvees rolled in, the mood darkened.
``UCK, UCK!'' bellowed the crowd, using the Albanian acronym of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army. Others shouted, ``Yeah, go to Serbia, now. It's where you belong!''
They reserved their fiercest curses for a driver they identified as the former district chief of the Serbian security police.
U.S. soldiers caught several boys throwing stones that glanced harmlessly off the doors of a few cars and hustled them well away from the dusty, potholed road.
Crammed into sagging, clapped-out cars or perched on mounds of worldly possessions on tractor carts, the Serbs -- many of them grizzled, elderly farmers with black-clad wives -- bore the invective impassively for the most part.
They usually stared straight ahead or behind. A few younger ones reciprocated when flashed the obscene middle finger by ethnic Albanian teenagers, but remained silent.
``I didn't expect we'd have to act like riot police here. But we have to, since although the Albanians are really nice people, when Serbs show up, they go crazy. They forget that Serbs are people too. It's really sad here,'' said U.S. Second Lieutenant Robert Kimmel, from Gail, Texas, as he stood guard.
The ethnic Albanian villagers said that while the passing Serbs may not necessarily have been involved in wartime killing and expulsions, they believed many had pillaged their homes after they were driven out by Serb paramilitaries.
But no one could be sure once the convoy had passed. ``They covered their goods with plastic sheeting, and we couldn't see what was underneath,'' complained 21-year-old Faik Lutfiu.
``We're a bit bitter that the Americans allow these Serbs to leave with their whole households whereas we had to flee with only the clothes on our backs,'' said Afrim Jakupi, 34.
``But the Serbs were able to do a deal with the Americans to get out unscathed. That's the biggest surprise of peacetime.''
More than half Kosovo's Serbs have fled for fear of reprisal since NATO-led peacekeepers took over the province in June