Washington Post - Nato fears depth of Albanian anger

By Danica Kirka - Associated Press Writer

Sunday, Dec. 5, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia –– The young NATO medic thought he was going to a car accident.

He hurriedly tried to thread his ambulance through a festive crowd of ethnic Albanians in hopes of reaching a burning orange car. But the mob closed before him in a circle. No one would let him pass.

Abandoning the Land Rover at the outer edge of spectators, he pushed through until he reached Dragan Basic, a 63-year-old Serb civil engineering professor.

His face looked as if it had been dragged across gravel. The medic began mouth-the-mouth resuscitation, but couldn't hear Basic's breathing over the crowd's shouting. He ripped open the man's shirt. That's when he saw the bullet's entry wound.

This was no car accident.

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NATO peacekeepers and U.N. police only realized later what had happened: A crowd of ethnic Albanians had pulled Basic, his 51-year-old wife and her 74-year-old mother from the car, flipped it over and set it on fire. The mob kicked, punched and pummeled them. Basic was shot. Firecrackers were jammed into the mouths of the terrified women.

Basic died en route to the hospital. The two women suffered critical injuries and remain hospitalized in the Serbian city of Nis.

The attack in the early hours of last Monday horrifyingly illustrated the depth of ethnic Albanian anger in a province wracked by war and a decade of oppression under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The mob's revenge has prompted soul-searching here over whether the West – lulled by the painful images of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Milosevic's onslaught – underestimated the cost of securing Kosovo's peace.

"This was a human rights war," said U.N. official Dennis McNamara. "It was all about protection of minorities. The persecuted being part of the persecution can't be part of this equation."

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It's not clear why the Basic family risked venturing out that night. It was the end of Albanian independence day – a time of unrestrained ethnic emotion that carried on past midnight.

Tens of thousands of revelers danced in the streets, waved black and red Albanian flags, shot off celebratory gunfire and popped firecrackers.

Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believe Basic's mother-in-law was ill and needed to go to a suburban hospital protected by Russian peacekeepers. To get there, he had to drive through a neighborhood teeming with ethnic Albanian revelers.

While snaking through the crowd, the professor, whose family has lived in Kosovo for generations, was either recognized or somehow identified as being a Serb.

After that, the family was at the mercy of the mob.

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Kosovo is not a place where political moderation rules. Ethnic Albanians consider Serbs collectively responsible for the crimes of the Milosevic regime.

An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians died during an 18-month Serb crackdown that ended when Milosevic accepted a peace plan to stop NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia. NATO-led peacekeepers entered Kosovo after Serb forces withdrew in June

"It's a game with numbers," said Daut Dauti, director of the Pristina office of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. "Albanians will say: 'They killed 10,000. Why isn't it OK to kill less than 100?'"

Efforts to rebuild civil society are difficult, Dauti said, because the war left no clear victor. Milosevic's forces are gone, but U.N. resolutions leave the future of Kosovo unresolved: the territory remains under Yugoslav sovereignty even though it is under U.N. control.

That puts NATO peacekeepers and U.N. police in the middle. Popular for the moment because of the air war, they are never sure when they will encounter the next mob of the very people they were sent to protect.

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Last weekend was supposed to be a time of joy, and peacekeepers and U.N. police gave people wide latitude for their raucous celebrations.

U.N. police were out en masse on the streets, though, patrolling in their red and white Land Cruisers that the people of Kosovo call "Coca-Cola cars."

One patrol, however, was unprepared for what they came upon at 12:30 a.m. last Monday. The two U.N. officers saw Basic's car on fire from 200 yards away. It took them about 10 minutes to drive through the crowd. Once they got close, one officer rolled down his window and stuck his head out to see what was happening. He was punched in the face.

Still, he persisted. He tried to help one of the women, likely Basic's wife, Dragica, into the patrol car. The mob blocked her path, and began rocking the U.N. car, lifting it off its wheels. Faced with possibly suffering the same fate as the three Serbs, the officers retreated and called for help.

Within 10 minutes, 11 other U.N. vehicles with two officers apiece converged on the scene. None had riot gear, tear gas, shields – nothing at all for trying to control a mob of 1,000 or more. Many in the crowd were drunk and almost certainly were armed.

Ethnic Albanian officers traveling with the U.N. units to learn about Western police work were taunted by the mob as traitors. American officers faced shouts of "Yankee go home!"

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The medic saw the flames because he happened to be on guard duty that night at a British peacekeepers' outpost about a mile up the road.

The peacekeepers raced to scene and pushed their way through the crowd of ethnic Albanians, who were chanting anti-Serb slogans while standing in a half-circle around the burning car.

The soldiers forced the crowd back so medics could attend to Basic, his wife and her mother, Borka Jovanovic. The three had been dragged as much as 40 yards from their car and were drenched in blood.

Soldiers said the frenzied crowd kept trying to get closer. Some sat atop a fence to get a better view. Many were clapping.

"It was like being at a football match," one soldier said.

The medic and others frantically working over the victims were soon attacked themselves, pelted with firecrackers tossed at their heads.

"It's like we were the enemy," the medic said, speaking on condition he not be quoted by name.

Finally, the peacekeepers loaded the family into a Land Rover and sped off. The crowd tossed firecrackers into the back of the vehicle.

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Dragica Basic is expected to recover from her injuries: a broken nose, severe cuts to her face, a fractured shoulder, broken ribs, bruises from head to foot.

Her mother may not be so lucky. She was so badly beaten she hemorrhaged into her lungs. Her nose was broken and dislocated. Her spleen had to be removed and her liver was ruptured. She suffered heavy abdominal bleeding and is bruised all over.

Tomislav Basic, the couple's son, said he had begged his parents to leave Kosovo. But his father refused to abandon his home.

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Although ethnic Albanian political leaders like Hashim Thaci and Ibrahim Rugova condemned the mob assault, fear of retaliation has discouraged witnesses from coming forward.

An editorial in Koha Ditore, the leading newspaper in Kosovo, also condemned the attack, saying "the killer of November 28th did exactly the same thing like Serbs did against Albanians."

"We shouldn't be like the Serbs," the editorial said.

Uncharacteristically, the editorial was not signed – a reflection of the danger that even ethnic Albanians can face for speaking out.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Belgrade-based reporter Misha Savic contributed to this report.

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