In perilous Pristina, British peacekeepers tread lightly

Returning Kosovars and retreating Serbs, weapons and KLA make lethal mix

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 17, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The British Parachute Regiment doesn't have to look too far for problems in this town. They come right to the front gate of C Company, First Battalion headquarters.

Yesterday, Lindita Obrtinca, a returning Kosovar Albanian refugee, drove her red Yugo to the curb of the former school turned headquarters, hopped out, and pleaded with a soldier: "I opened the door, I found in my home rockets. There are too many rockets in my home."

Within minutes, a six-member patrol was walking up a hill in one of Pristina's worst neighborhoods, ready to pounce on Obrtinca's house, which had been taken over by a Serbian paramilitary during the war.

They passed Serbs packing belongings and preparing to flee Kosovo. They zig-zagged between neighborhood kids. Finally, they entered Obrtinca's house and came away with two rockets, bullets and a bagful of police uniforms.

But a gun was missing. The Kosovo Liberation Army had whisked it away.

The incident reveals the perils that face nearly everyone as Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, tries to return to normal and Serbian police and military forces that ravaged the city are replaced by international peacekeepers.

Abandoned homes contain lethal surprises. Soldiers enter neighborhoods like divers dropping into the deep end of a darkened pool. And the rebel Albanian force, the KLA, won't go away or give up its guns.

The uncertainty has increased tensions in Pristina. Trash hasn't been collected for weeks and the water has been turned off for days.

But it is the movement of people from one place to another that is most noticeable.

Ethnic Albanians are returning by the thousands from Macedonia and Albania, re-entering homes that have been looted or trashed. On the street, old acquaintances hug one another. Tired refugees lug belongings into apartments.

Obrtinca was among the lucky ones; her house was not a ruin. But the Serb neighbor who promised to watch over it, a policeman named Zarko, turned it into his wartime clubhouse, even writing "Zarko's Cafe" on the wall. He stole furniture, televisions, a satellite dish and two Doberman pinschers.

"When we left, he said, `You're my best friend, I'm going to take care of the house,' " Obrtinca said.

The Serbs are heading out. It's not yet an exodus, but the flight of the Serbs is noticeable as overloaded cars carry people and possessions, all seemingly bound for the border. Many say they're being intimidated by the KLA, which would amount to "ethnic cleansing" under the nose of international peacekeepers and journalists.

"We are very afraid here," said Vinko Arsinijevic as he packed a child's bicycle atop two mattresses. "We don't know what to do."

Yesterday, Serbs from Urosevac were passing on the highway on Pristina's outskirts, telling stories of being booted out by KLA fighters, who took over the town's gas station, post office and municipal building.

In nearby Kosovo Polje, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Walker, commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, addressed thousands of Serbian civilians in a bid to get them to stay. Even though most couldn't hear a word of the speech, they couldn't miss the unmistakable message at the end, when a column of British tanks lumbered up the road.

"The Serbs are not going from Kosovo," said Ana Ruzica, 48. "But KFOR didn't start well. It wasn't doing a good job."

Amid the paranoia and pressure are soldiers like Maj. Julian Davis, who commands C Company, First Battalion.

"A lot of civilians are moving out," Davis said. "I wouldn't say it was a panic. It's not Serbs fleeing en masse."

Davis and his men are trying to keep the peace, using tactics of separation honed in Northern Ireland. For now, that means treading softly with the KLA, which is returning to Pristina as a triumphant force.

"It's our job to keep the two factions apart," Davis said. "At the moment, it's a case of let the KLA exist and politicians will think of a future role for them."

Davis said his battalion has seized five Kalashnikov assault rifles, 15 grenades, a few hundred rounds of ammunition and some pistols from the KLA.

"We give them receipts," he said. "If they're not happy, they can take it to higher authorities."

About a mile from Davis stands the new KLA headquarters in Pristina, a posh chalet with a commanding view of the city. Inside, "Commander Remi" holds court with journalists, but only by appointment.

His men loiter outside. For all their talk of becoming a professional force, the soldiers apparently have not mastered the art of building a latrine.

But the KLA, which is supposed to be demilitarized, has big plans.

"The KLA will slowly start to become a security force, a national force and a protection force for the Kosovo people," said Jakup Krasniqi, a KLA spokesman.

He said the KLA has not intimidated Serbian civilians, saying those who have left felt guilty for crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians -- "not as a result of pressure or tactics coming from the KLA but as a result of feeling of responsibility."

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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