Yugoslav pullout on track as Kosovars risk mines to come home
June 16, 1999
Despite asking for -- and receiving -- an extra day to withdraw from part of Kosovo, the Yugoslav army's pullout has been on schedule, said British Lt. Col. Robin Clifford, a spokesman for the KFOR peacekeeping mission.
Peacekeeping troops continued to warn of the danger of land mines laid throughout the Serbian province, and said they had discovered more of what they suspected were mass graves, as the Yugoslav troops retreated.
All but a few stragglers had left the first scheduled withdrawal zone in southern Kosovo by midnight Tuesday, Clifford said. All Yugoslav troops are to be out of Kosovo no later than Sunday.
In all, about 26,000 troops -- roughly two-thirds of the Yugoslav army and special police force in Kosovo -- have left, he said.
Clifford said the alliance gave some Yugoslav units an extra day to get out after they ran out of fuel and encountered other problems near Prizren.
A Yugoslav general in Belgrade said Yugoslav air force and anti-aircraft defense systems have been completely removed from Kosovo. Gen. Spasoje Smiljanic, commander of the Yugoslav Army Air Force and Air Defense, told the Beta news agency their removal was completed without incident.
"The withdrawal of Serb forces has begun to uncover the full horror of what has happened in Kosovo in the past few months," said British Defense Secretary George Robertson.
NATO troops leading the peacekeeping mission have come across scenes of mass killings "the like of which has not been seen on our continent for half a century, and which we had hoped never to see again," Robertson said.
The discovery of multiple-grave sites in several towns has bolstered NATO's repeated claims that Yugoslav troops carried out a campaign of atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo.
Since Monday, British paratroopers have found more than 120 bodies at two grave sites around Pristina, Robertson said.
Italian peacekeepers in Djakovica turned up between 50 and 70 bodies and Dutch troops found 20 women and children dead in a house near Prizren, he said.
Near the Macedonian border, residents in Stari Kacanik took CNN reporters to the site of possibly 16 graves, not far from where a suspected mass grave was found Monday in Kacanik.
The residents said about 150 people were killed by Serb forces and buried at Kacanik and Stari Kacanik. U.S. troops are guarding the graves at Kacanik, and Robertson said all such sites are being secured as crime scenes.
"The sites are guarded, and access is only given to the investigators of the international tribunal," he said. "But the number of these sites is growing every day."
In Urosevac, U.S. forces detained two Serb brothers accused by ethnic Albanians of war crimes. Their accusers identified the brothers as were members of a paramilitary group called the "Black Hand:" They said the two had kidnapped, tortured and killed people in the Urosevac area.
And in the town of Zegra, U.S. Marines disarmed a group of about 200 members of the ethnic Albanian rebel group, the Kosovo Liberation Army. The Marines took six of the rebel leaders into custody.
The KLA troops refused to give up their guns at first, but relented when the Marines brought in armored personnel carriers and Cobra attack helicopters to back up their demands, said Capt. David Eiland.
Although more than 14,000 KFOR troops have fanned out across Kosovo in an effort to keep the peace during the Yugoslav pullback, ethnic Serbs were afraid that Kosovo's displaced Albanians -- and the separatist guerrillas of the KLA -- would return seeking vengeance.
Panicked Serbs jammed northbound buses in Pristina amid scenes of chaos at the main bus terminal Wednesday. Ethnic Albanians made up 90 percent of Kosovo's population before the war, and Serbs rushed to buses in an attempt to leave before the ethnic Albanians return.
The Yugoslav army's Serb officers also feared attacks by the KLA as they left the province. NATO has pledged to defend the Yugoslav army from attack as it pulls out.
KFOR's commander, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, has promised his troops will remain even-handed. Robertson said things were going well, "considering the depth of anger."
The KLA has agreed to hand over their arms when all the Yugoslav forces are out of Kosovo, Robertson said. He said NATO expects the KLA to live up to its commitment to demilitarize after that time.
In Pristina, meanwhile, a Russian convoy arrived to resupply the small Russian contingent holding the city's airport. The Russians upstaged KFOR by arriving Friday and refusing British troops access to the airfield, one of their first objectives in Pristina.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, met for talks in the Finnish capital Helsinki to settle Russia's role in KFOR.
Hundreds of thousands of Kosovars fled Yugoslavia during the NATO's 11-week air war, and KFOR continued to warn returning refugees about the possibility of land mines strewn throughout the countryside. The British planned to send a military mine expert to aid U.N. workers in Kosovo trying to resettle the refugees.
Maj. Andy Phillips, a British explosives expert in Pristina, said the Yugoslav army carefully marked the location of its minefields and has turned those records over to advancing KFOR units. But he said the KLA may not have been so careful.
"The main KLA elements are cooperating, but we don't know what fringe elements are out there," Phillips said.
Most of the mines are located along Yugoslavia's borders with Albania and Macedonia, KFOR Brig. John Hoskinson said.
Unexploded bombs from NATO bombing are also a problem, Hoskinson said -- particularly cluster bombs used against Yugoslav troops during the conflict.
Two refugees were killed along the Macedonian border Tuesday as between 1,500 and 2,000 refugees ignored warnings and crossed the Yugoslav frontier. A third person was seriously injured, a U.N. spokesman said.
At the border crossing at Blace, Macedonia, Kosovo refugee Flanzi Gashi said she would begin making her way home to Pristina on Wednesday.
"I can wait no longer," she said. "I'm going, and my risk -- when I know NATO is there -- I am not afraid."
Gashi said she did not know whether her family was still in Pristina.
"I hope I will find them alive. I don't know," she said.
Correspondents Richard Blystone and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.
More U.S. troops enter Kosovo
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