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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugees Ignore Safety Warnings, Head Home

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Ignoring warnings from aid workers and NATO, thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees streamed north into Kosovo on Wednesday, encouraged by a peacekeeping mission that despite pockets of resistance seemed to be moving smoothly.

As their battered cars and trucks packed dusty roads into Kosovo, the roads leading out of the Serbian province were filled with Serbs f either Yugoslav soldiers departing under terms of the peace deal or civilians frightened of retaliatory attacks. Serbs desperate to leave tussled among themselves at the Pristina bus station.

The state-run Tanjug news agency reported Wednesday that all Yugoslav army units had left Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, saying peacekeepers helped escort some of the final 50 vehicles out.

It was a sea change in the makeup of the embattled province, after months of violence forced 860,000 ethnic Albanians to flee their homes.

Hundreds of Kosovo Liberation Army rebels emerged from the woods and joined the refugees heading back, with some rebels even facing down British soldiers who tried to disarm them.

In southeastern Kosovo, a KLA battalion of 200 met with American forces Wednesday. American officers said the battalion's leader had wanted to enter the town of Zegra to seek out Serbs.

The Yugoslav withdrawal from the zone extending from Pristina to the southern border was largely completed by its deadline of midnight Tuesday, except for isolated cases of soldiers in broken-down vehicles, NATO spokesman Major Lewis Garneau said Wednesday.

Lieutenant Colonel Robin Clifford, a spokesman for the allied force, said 26,000 of the 41,000 Serbian troops had left Kosovo, taking with them 110 tanks, 210 armored personnel carriers and 151 artillery and mortar pieces.

NATO gave the Serbs an additional 24 hours to vacate that zone due to road congestion, he said. All Serbian forces are to be out of Kosovo by Sunday night.

At Morini on the Albanian border, thousands of refugees poured across the border Wednesday, creating kilometers-long backups of cars, tractors, buses and vans. Many of the refugees honked their horns and waved victory signs. Overwhelmed Albanian border guards made only cursory checks of those crossing.

Officials said 10,000 refugees crossed back into Kosovo from Albania on Tuesday, and thousands from Macedonia. Far more were expected during the course of Wednesday, said Judith Kumin, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Once this thing gathers momentum there's a snowball effect and you can't stop it,'' she said.

The refugees returned to Kosovo despite warnings from international agencies that the southern Serbian province was still perilous f that aid workers cannot feed them and that NATO soldiers are not yet ready to protect them. Two refugees have died while crossing minefields.

But officials seemed to be doing what they could to ease the flow of refugees, recognizing that they were powerless to stop it.

UNHCR set up way stations on the road between the Albanian border town of Kukes and the Kosovo city of Prizren to supply people with food and water during their return, and UNHCR vehicles with tow ropes were on standby to help cars that broke down along the way.

"We are now in God's hands,'' said Ursim Gashi, a 26-year-old farmer on a tractor pulling a trailer jammed with family members. "We'll be so happy to be back in our homeland we won't even need to eat.''

For Serbs, the withdrawal from Kosovo is a severe blow to nationalist pride. Although Kosovo's prewar population of 2.1 million was only 10 percent Serbian, the province is the symbolic heartland of Serbia, full of historic sites and some of the Serbian Orthodox Church's holiest buildings.

The emotional and religious significance of Kosovo lent weight to the church's call for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to step down.

Appealing to "every sensible person,'' the church said: "We demand that the current president of the country and his government resign in the interest of the people and their salvation.''

In the village of Kosovo Polje outside Pristina, ethnic Albanian guerrillas in full uniform torched a dozen Serbian homes moments after Yugoslav forces left the village, a British press report said.

The Serb-run Media Center in Pristina reported that KLA fighters attacked Serb villagers 20 kilometers southwest of Pristina, wounding several people. The report could not be independently confirmed.