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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Albanian Kosovars: 'Russians Killed Us'




ORAHOVAC, Yugoslavia -- Albanians with tractors, cars and trucks spread out across a hillside and for two kilometers along a winding road for a second day Tuesday, blocking an advance column of Russian peacekeepers from moving in to take charge of the city.


The Albanians, mostly young men, but also families with young children, bore placards in Albanian and English that read "Russians killed us,'' and "We don't trust Russians.''


They showed no sign of backing down.


"We will stay here until the Russians grow tired of insisting and give up,'' said Ismet Bugari, 53, who was among several thousand townspeople manning the barricades in Tuesday's 35-degree-Celsius heat.


"We won't mind weather conditions, even if stones fall from the sky,'' Bugari said. "We will still be here because anything is better than having the criminals in our town.''


The Albanians, who say Russian mercenaries fought beside the Serbian militias in Kosovo, blocked the road Monday to prevent Russian peacekeepers from arriving to take over positions from Dutch soldiers.


Russian, Dutch and German officers met Tuesday with a four-member Albanian delegation to demand they lift the barriers. The Albanians, however, refused, even rejecting a proposal for joint Dutch-Russian patrols.


The Albanians and the peacekeepers agreed to meet again Wednesday.


In the Serbian quarter, meanwhile, several hundred Orahovac Serbs rallied in support of the Russians, shouting "Serbia, Serbia, we want Russians, we won't give up the Russians, KLA out.''


In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry denounced the Orahovac blockade as an "open challenge'' to the international community and Moscow's participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping force. A deputy defense minister, Alexander Avdeyev, said it was up to the NATO-led peacekeeping command to sort out the problem so the Russians could take their positions.


Orahovac is one of the most tortured areas in Kosovo and as such, a microcosm of the province's agony and continuing insecurity. The area has the greatest concentration of mass graves f 75 in an area of 10 square kilometers f and was where more than 1,000 people were massacred during the war.


Peacekeeping officials say it also has the largest concentration of war-crimes suspects still living in Kosovo, local Serbs who have been named by witnesses and survivors.


The fate of these Serbs, and others like them, is at the heart of a tension that has been simmering in Kosovo since the end of the war. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague has handed down indictments against major Serbian figures, like President Slobodan Milosevic, and sent scores of investigators to the province to gather those cases.


But many Albanians are interested in more personal, and pressing questions, suspecting their former neighbors of burning their homes and killing their relatives and eager for the kind of detailed accounting the tribunal has no intention of providing them.


Lieutenant Colonel Tony van Loon, who commands the Dutch task force here, said there are dozens of suspected war criminals in the Serbian quarter and in a nearby Serbian village, Velika Hoca.


"It was a frenzy of killing,'' van Loon said, referring to March and April when violence by Serbs was frequent. "People were shot in the legs and then burned when their house was set on fire. A baby was found with its head chopped off. There is tremendous rage among the Albanians when they find their family members dead when they return.''


Inside the Albanian blockade, within an even tighter blockade of Dutch troops, the city's 2,500 Serbs live on narrow steep streets, clustered around the Serbian Orthodox Church.


They are the source of much of the tension, and the main reason behind the Albanians' aversion to letting Russian troops deploy in the area.


Dutch troops guard the ends of the streets with huge self-propelled guns pointing outward. They are guarding the Serbs from attacks by vengeful Albanians, but they are also preventing the Serbs from leaving, to make sure the war-crimes suspects living there do not escape. Only a few Serbs are allowed to leave each day, taken out under the protection of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.


Inside the quarter, which the residents themselves liken to a ghetto, there is a dead, dispirited air, but also a lingering trace of menace. People hang around the streets buying or selling a few vegetables or sweets. Young men in track suits swagger along with nowhere to go. Older men sit on street corners and question strangers as to who they are and what they want.


The tension soared Friday when Dutch troops received orders to hand over the sector to Russian peacekeepers and move east to another area in central Kosovo.


At the same time they got the go ahead to arrest three local Serbian leaders, which they did without incident, with the help of German military police. They had been investigating the three men in connection with war-crimes accusations for some time and had been watching their movements.