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THE PATH TO PEACE

Rogue Militias a Threat to U.S. Troops in Kosovo

Peacekeeping: Serbian irregulars and KLA 'wannabes' join land mines as a risk to soldiers, military officials say.

July 02, 1999|JULIE TAMAKI and JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Yugoslav irregulars and rogue members of the Kosovo Liberation Army have joined land mines and unexploded bombs as the greatest threats facing American troops stationed here, top U.S. military officials said Thursday.

Army Brig. Gen. John Craddock, commander of U.S. forces in Kosovo, said that based on refugee accounts, an unknown number of armed members of Serbian paramilitary groups are believed to have stayed behind--a violation of a NATO peace deal that called for the fighters to vacate the province by June 20.

However, one of Craddock's top commanders said he believes that fighters from the KLA still driven by an urge to defend their homeland pose a larger threat to security than the remaining Serbian forces.

Lt. Col. Joe Anderson based his conclusion on the cases of looting, shots fired and sporadic acts of violence that his soldiers have encountered.

"It's hard to determine if they're actual KLA members or wannabes," Anderson said, defining "wannabes" as people who have obtained KLA patches and are using them to pose as members of the guerrilla group, which has signed a disarmament agreement with NATO.

U.S. troops have sustained no significant injuries so far as they near the three-week mark in Kosovo. In both cases in which U.S. forces have killed gunmen after coming under fire, their assailants turned out to be Serbs, Craddock said.

For ethnic Albanians, Thursday was another day for burying victims, including those killed in one of the worst single incidents in the Serbian campaign of terror.

Weeping family members and friends laid to rest in a single coffin the burned remains of 20 people shot to death in a basement in the southwestern city of Djakovica.

Yugoslav troops moved into the Qerim neighborhood April 2 and apprehended a group of mainly women and children whose husbands and fathers already had fled. The soldiers killed all 20 and burned their bodies.

"The victims talk. We do not talk," said Mohamet Bytsi, standing with a triptych showing the photographs of 18 of the 20 victims. "You can see what they [the Serbs] have done," he said. The youngest victim was 1 1/2 years old.

The basement massacre was included in the indictment filed in May by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and four of his associates. Before being buried, the remains were examined by FBI experts who have come to Kosovo to assist the war crimes tribunal in collecting evidence.

Farther up the road from Djakovica, in villages, smaller funerals continued daily as returning refugees reinterred the corpses of their slain relatives.

It was the bitterest of days for Mustafa Spahiu, 58, a barber from Orahovac. Having returned from Albania on Sunday, he followed rumors in neighboring villages until Thursday, when he came across a shallow grave under an apricot tree, where he found the body of his daughter, Hadija. She was 33.

She had been taken from her home by Serbian police April 27, Spahiu said. While in exile, Spahiu and his wife held out hope that she was still alive.

The villagers in Bela Crkva who buried her said she apparently had been raped by her abductors, who then killed her with gunshots to the chest and genitals.

At the United Nations, spokesman Fred Eckhard said that ethnic Albanian refugees driven out during the Serbian rampage were returning home to Kosovo with "lightning speed," and that the number reached half a million people Thursday.

But for many there was no home left.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, estimated that in cities such as Pec and Kosovska Mitrovica, between 40% and 90% of the housing has been destroyed.

"These people worked hard to destroy homes here," Redmond said of the Serbs. "It wasn't just firing a shell through a wall. It took some time and effort to level some of these buildings."

*

Tamaki reported from Pristina and Daniszewski from Djakovica and Bela Crkva. Times staff writer John J. Goldman at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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