Convoy of fleeing Serbs ambushed

Raw hatred of ethnic Albanians erupts as 155 refugees persecuted in their Kosovo homes head for Montenegro



Chris Bird in Pec and agencies

The Guardian - Thursday October 28, 1999

Four Serbs were reported missing last night after a column of ethnic Serbs leaving Kosovo for Montenegro under United Nations protection was attacked by ethnic Albanians in the western town of Pec, the UN's refugee agency reported.

Peter Kessler, the spokesman for UNHCR in Kosovo, which organised the convoy in cooperation with the Nato-led K-For peacekeeping force, said: "This is the worse incident of its kind. It's completely unacceptable."

More than a dozen vehicles in the convoy of 21 civilian cars and four buses were set alight during the attack.

An eyewitness, Veselj Berisha, 55, said the trouble began when people in the convoy flashed a three-finger Serb salute, provoking ethnic Albanians in the town with a potent symbol of Serb nationalism. Outraged crowds circled the vehicles, he said, pulling people into the street and screaming "Where are our prisoners?"

Nato forces intervened, but not before the vehicles were set on fire.

The convoy had left the Serb ghetto of Orahovac in the south-west on its way to the neighbouring republic of Montenegro via Pec in a tense atmosphere.

Many in the cars were visibly upset as they left their homes. Two Serb women in the front of their tiny Yugo car, dressed in dusty black, wept as they waited to leave the town of red roofs and spiky minarets. Another cried as she stooped to grab a handful of dust from the roadside, the only part of Kosovo she could take with her.

"This is ugly," said Nebojsa, a young Serb man, who was sitting in his car with his wife and child as the convoy set off from Orahovac. "You can see for yourself what's happening here, we have [to] flee our homes."

On reaching Pec, Kosovo's third largest city, the sombre atmosphere turned to terror as a crowd of Albanians attacked the convoy - escorted by Dutch and German peacekeepers - and tried to pull the refugees from their cars.

Sick of life in the pressure cooker of Orahovac, the 155 Serb refugees had volunteered to leave the town. But the escort duty must have haunted the Dutch: it was Dutch troops who, through UN fumbling, abandoned the Srebrenica "safe area" in north-eastern Bosnia, where up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by the Bosnian Serbs.

UNHCR said that of the 155 people who set out in the convoy, the peacekeepers managed to get 117 to Montenegro. About 35 people were taken to the Italian headquarters of the Nato peacekeeping force, where a mob of hundreds of angry ethnic Albanians gathered outside, setting off firecrackers. Four people were unaccounted for.

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