Roads back to Kosovo packed

Honking, crowded caravans of refugees happily head home

`We survived the worst'

Marines force KLA fighters to give up weapons

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 17, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VERMITCA, Yugoslavia -- In the first big wave of a reverse exodus of refugees who were driven from Kosovo in a Serbian campaign of terror, more than 12,000 cheering, stunned Albanians began the journey home yesterday.

Their exodus created the kind of chaos for refugee agencies that aid workers had feared.

By midafternoon, the line of honking, overloaded cars, trucks and tractors climbing the crumbling road out of Albania toward this Kosovo border village was 5 miles long. The trip by car from Kukes, the rutted Albanian town 15 miles down the mountain where 120,000 refugees have made their temporary homes, was at one point taking 4 1/2 hours.

In the southern village of Zegra, a tense standoff between U.S. Marines and Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, with helicopter gunships overhead, ended with the confiscation of weapons from about 200 ethnic Albanian insurgents and detention of six of their leaders.

The confiscation of the weapons -- including AK-47 assault rifles, mines and rocket-propelled grenades -- came as NATO commanders scrambled to control the insurgents' increasingly brash exercising of power in Kosovo as the Yugoslav army and police withdraw.

KLA leaders have pledged to cooper ate with NATO peacekeepers, but they have not shown much inclination to break up their insurgency -- just as it has become the dominant political and military force among Kosovo's Albanians.

In town after town, including the capital, Pristina, the KLA's presence has grown each day, with their red and black flags adorning "official" buildings and their armed fighters openly patrolling villages.

The company of insurgents had just paraded through Zegra on their way to Gnjilane when troops from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit confronted them early yesterday morning a few miles to the north. Marine Capt. David Eiland, commander of Company K, said he first asked them to turn over their weapons voluntarily, beginning two hours of tense negotiations.

When they continued to refuse, he ordered them surrounded and, with Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships hovering overhead, arrested six of the group's officers.

It was not until eight hours after the confrontation began that the insurgents complied. "We pretty much insisted they turn them over," Eiland said of the weapons.

Until yesterday, NATO's interaction with the KLA has been largely cordial and tolerant. The rebels view NATO as an ally in their struggle to win freedom for Kosovo's predominantly Albanian population.

But NATO commanders here have pledged to be evenhanded in securing peace in Kosovo after more than a year of civil war and 78 days of NATO airstrikes. That means protecting Kosovo's Serbs as well as Albanians.

NATO said deployment of its Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers in Kosovo and the withdrawal of Serbian troops were on schedule. A spokesman in Pristina said more than 26,000 Yugoslav troops had pulled out, leaving about 14,000 to go. In Belgrade, a senior general said Yugoslav air force and anti-aircraft units had completed their withdrawal.

The first phase of that withdrawal was supposed to have been complete Tuesday night, but NATO granted a 24-hour extension, saying that the Yugoslav army was making a concerted effort to leave but faced enormous logistical challenges withdrawing 40,000 soldiers and police officers.

The slow trip up to the border seemed to have little effect on the high spirits of the refugees, who waved the Kosovar two-fingered victory sign and shouted "NATO, NATO!" in what sometimes seemed like a moving party.

"We survived the worst aggressors in the world!" shouted Mehmet Laska, 49, a mechanic from the Kosovar town of Prizren.

This was the place, just 2 1/2 months ago, that the same refugees had crossed in a driving rain from Kosovo into Morini, Albania, weeping and shocked, with lips cracked and bleeding from thirst on what was often a three-day walk to the border.

This time the mood was jubilant, though many refugees were going home to houses that had been destroyed. "It's better in a tent in my garden than here," said Qamil Berisha, 35, of the Suha Reka district, who said his house had been burned to the ground by Serbs.

Although border workers for the U.N. refugee agency were passing out leaflets in Albanian that warned about land mines, booby traps, unexploded bombs and shortages of water, food and electricity, they elicited mostly shrugs from refugees who for the first time in months could see the rolling green hills of southern Kosovo.

The leaflets asked the Albanians to "please be patient" while waiting for aid agencies to accompany them home as soon it was safe, and for the past week refugees in Kukes have been obediently saying that they would do so. But in what seemed a 24-hour psychological shift, from a state in which they did not dare to go home to one in which it seemed impossible to stay away, thousands of refugees listened to the news of NATO's advance on their radios, watched what their neighbors were doing, then packed up and left.

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