NYT - October 29, 1999

Peacekeepers Cannot Explain Failure to Protect Serb Convoy

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Officials of NATO and the United Nations struggled Thursday to explain how they failed to protect a convoy of Serbian civilians from a sudden and ferocious Albanian attack on Wednesday.

Representatives of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which organized the convoy, expressed relief that no one had been killed and said the incident was under investigation to prevent a recurrence.

More than 30 Serbian civilians, who were leaving Kosovo in a long convoy of cars and buses, were nearly killed by a mob of Albanians in the city of Pec after being separated from the convoy and straying into the center of town.

When they came under attack, the Serbs abandoned their cars and ran for cover to a police station housing Italian peacekeepers. Some 18 of the Serbs were treated for cuts and bruises. Several were badly beaten. There were no injuries among peacekeepers or U.N. personnel, who have been working to maintain order for four months.

All the victims of the attack were later evacuated in NATO armored personnel carriers and driven to the border with the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. They left behind the burnt-out shells of their cars, smoldering on the streets of Pec.

The violence cast an unwelcome spotlight on the failure of peacekeepers and the United Nations to protect the Serbian minority in Kosovo. The incident gave the Yugoslav authorities in Belgrade another chance to criticize the international community's performance in the territory, just as peacekeepers had been trying to claim some success.

"We will investigate the incident itself more closely," said Maj. Ole Irgens, the peacekeepers' chief spokesman. "Was anyone responsible for this attack on the convoy, and what happened when the convoy split?" he said. Dutch and German troops were accompanying the convoy, and 14 Dutch soldiers were with the Serbs when they were attacked.

The incident will also cause the refugee commissioner's office and the U.N. administration to rethink some of their policies. The refugee office has helped some 500 Serbs to leave the province over recent months, stressing that they are mostly elderly, sick and isolated, and could not survive the winter in Kosovo. About 2,300 Serbs remain in an enclave in the town of Orahovac.

The attack will probably encourage more to flee. In the meantime the small successes the United Nations has claimed, for instance the buses now running between Kosovo communities, were halted after the attack. The buses, in which Albanians and Serbs have ridden together, will resume their routes on Sunday, said Peter Kessler, the spokesman for the refugee office.

Wednesday's convoy consisted of about 155 people, mostly Serbian families, traveling in four buses and 21 cars from Orahovac to Montenegro, and accompanied by NATO armored vehicles and other cars. A similar convoy had made the same journey some weeks before without incident.

But on Wednesday, a Serbian car broke down on the road near Pec in western Kosovo, and the last third of the convoy stopped. When they continued on their way, the lead car took a wrong turn and led the remaining 14 cars into the center of Pec.

An official with the peacekeepers acknowledged that the leaders of the convoy should have spotted the breakdown and waited for the stragglers. And when they moved off again on their own, he said, an official vehicle should have been leading them. For the moment those lapses remain unexplained, but the official said they were being investigated.

By all accounts the angry reaction of the crowd was spontaneous, and the violence flared extraordinarily quickly. "It came as a total surprise; it could not have been planned," Irgens said.

As Kessler explained it: "A Serb driver took a wrong turn, got nervous and did not know what to do. It was an accident." He described the anger of the Albanian crowd, which grew to over 1,000, as the shock of suddenly finding dozens of Serbs sitting in cars in their midst. "It was a spontaneous demonstration of people suddenly made angry when they are hit in the face with these people," he said.

"It was indicative of the ethnic tensions that everybody is facing. There are explosive situations all across the province." He compared the feelings of revenge in Kosovo to those of people in postwar Holland and Belgium, where feelings against collaborators led to many killings. "The Balkans are not the only place were primitive feelings of revenge and anger run high," he said.

The Albanians who quickly gathered around the stranded convoy were apparently under the impression that the Serbs were being brought back to Kosovo to resettle, Kessler said, citing a witness. That issue is delicate in Kosovo, particularly in Pec, where many homes were destroyed by Serbian forces during the war and where shelter for Albanian families remains an acute problem, he said.

He added that it was only when a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, now a member of the civilian Kosovo Protection Corps, spoke to the crowd and promised to see that the Serbs left the province, that the crowd dispersed.

Albanian officials said the Serbs should not have blundered into the center of the traffic-choked market town. Ramadan Avdiu, secretary-general of the Albanian-run provisional government in Kosovo, said the attack repaid the Serbs for the suffering caused during the war.

"Albanians are revolted after all the massacres, rapes and expulsions," he said, "and they answered when provoked."