In Pristina, tension rises as a new order settles in

Residents uneasy as NATO's troops face Serbian forces

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 14, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The capital of Kosovo lay on the cusp yesterday, at the moment where two very different versions of itself intersected. On one street corner, Serbian police with automatic weapons. Down the street, a British armored personnel carrier.

The Serbs, who have spent months terrorizing the city, were still swaggering, defiantly looking for trouble and making themselves as visible and apparent as they could as NATO troops were installing a new order.

When they clashed, as they did here yesterday afternoon, it was a Serbian policeman who lay dead on the street, shot down by British paratroopers. A NATO spokesman said the policeman had fired his pistol at the troops and then ignored warnings to drop the gun.

Serbian forces are supposed to withdraw from Pristina by late today or early tomorrow, though what the paramilitaries here choose to do is a big question. Until then, this is a city where the tension is inescapable, and guns are everywhere.

"Their blood is still up," said Edward Sherif, an ethnic Turk, about the Serbian fighters in the capital. "It will be hard."

Across the street from a building connected to a mosque that had just been set on fire, Serbian soldiers boarded a bus. Passers-by said they had thrown gasoline bombs into the building.

A car sped down the main street, horn blaring, the driver giving the three-fingered Serbian salute. At the Grand Hotel, a place where Serbian paramilitaries and foreign correspondents gather, the basement was crowded at midafternoon with armed Serbian troops. Others, their guns slung on their shoulders, were drinking at the bar.

British armored vehicles tried three times to circumvent roadblocks set up by Serbs so they could enter an ethnic Albanian village east of Pristina where houses were being set ablaze, but eventually they withdrew. To the west, Serbs were busily burning houses and, apparently, documents.

A Canadian reconnaissance squad posted in Magura filmed as much of the burning as they could.

"Hopefully, the war crimes tribunal can use those films," said Warrant Officer William Kingston.

In some places in Kosovo, Albanians came out of hiding and rapturously greeted the NATO troops. But in Pristina there was little of that.

"Nobody will come out for two or three more days," said Valentina Hoti, a Kosovar Albanian, "because they are still worried about the Serbs."

With nightfall came the sound of repeated gunfire throughout Pristina. Several large explosions could be heard. U.S. Army Apache helicopters circled overhead, bristling with firepower. On the outskirts, British mechanized artillery units had their guns trained on the city.

If the city doesn't explode in the next day or so, it will inexorably fall under NATO's domination and protection. With each hour, more troops are arriving and lines being extended. Some of the British armor -- notably the Challenger tank -- is immense, and seems to have been brought here primarily to make an impression.

The Serbs may be getting the message, though it hasn't stopped them from burning and looting just a little more.

Others are getting the message as well, even here. Dixi Destan, an ethnic Turk, ventured from her home yesterday for the first time in three months.

"I am today very, very happy," she said in English. "I don't know how to say how happy. When NATO came, I go, `Ooooooo.' "

She clapped in delight. She and her mother were strolling along the main street, as if it were any Sunday in June -- not one, as this one was, with glowering policemen lounging everywhere while British soldiers in body armor maintained their patrols.

Serbian civilians, of course, reacted quite differently. The exodus of Serbs from Kosovo continued, with tractors, cars, trucks, buses taking to the roads northward. It was in some ways like the dispersal of Kosovar Albanians, except that these refugees were loaded down with goods, and no one was stealing from them. Some were driving cars without license plates, suggesting that the vehicles had been extorted from fleeing Albanians earlier this spring.

Refugees from villages west of Pristina headed for the airport, controlled by Russian troops, as the quickest way of reaching the highways heading north and also because of the sense of security the Russians offered.

"The Serbs would not feel safe without us," said a Russian lieutenant sitting on the top of his armored personnel carrier.

"Russians have soul, and we believe in that," said one Serbian woman. "It's enough. NATO people have only got an army, but no soul."

The standoff at the airport, where Russian troops took up positions before the arrival of NATO, continued.

Two and sometimes three Russian armored vehicles blocked the entrance to the airport; a succession of NATO vehicles came up and showed the flag.

A group of Serbian soldiers stood with the Russians, never moving more than a couple of feet away from them. When the Canadians appeared, their first question to the onlookers was, naturally: Have you heard what's happening in the Stanley Cup hockey finals?

Late in the day, some Norwegian and British Land Rovers tested the Russians' determination. The Russians stood their ground, and the NATO troops were withdrawn. A Serbian soldier, bolder now, waved visitors away with his rifle.

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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