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Yugoslavia: RFE/RL Reporter Caught In Kosovo Crossfire

Pristina, 28 June 1999 (RFE/RL/) -- There are so many troops patrolling the streets of the Kosovo capital Pristina these days that members of KFOR -- the international peacekeeping force -- are often able to react to clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

I saw this demonstrated first-hand while traveling through central Pristina on Friday (June 25) with a Danish photographer and our translator. We had been commenting on the precision of a NATO missile strike against Pristina's central post office when the dull popping sound of more than 20 gunshots broke out nearby.

Pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks dove for cover. My photographer colleague quickly stopped his jeep and we jumped out, laying behind the vehicle for protection. His haste to park the vehicle, however, placed us in the middle of a crossfire between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, all in civilian clothes.

British KFOR soldiers in a passing patrol were on the spot in less than a minute. Carrying automatic rifles, they chased the gunmen around the side of Pristina's municipal government building. One of the Serbs stopped and started shooting at the British soldiers. When a soldier fired back, the Serb gunman threw his pistol into a patch of long grass beside a Serbian cafe and tried to run away. But within minutes he was captured by the peacekeepers and found carrying another pistol and a hand grenade.

The British soldier who fired at the Serbian gunman breathlessly described the incident to me while other KFOR peacekeepers chased the man down and arrested him:

"Driving by there. Two gunmen shooting at each other. I stopped. Got out of the vehicle. Came over here. Tried to stop them. (They) still kept firing. I shouted, 'Halt!' Two men started firing at me. I fired a round back, but we don't know (who was firing at us). People in civilian clothing. (I) couldn't tell (if they were ethnic Albanians or Serbs)."

A few minutes later, a second soldier, making the arrest, said:

"Stay in that vehicle. Everybody in this room, don't leave. Get in there. Stay in there. Hey, Steve. Get a call in and send us some reinforcements. All right. You, now. Get up against the wall. Turn around there."

Only the Serbian gunman was detained. At least three other people involved in the shooting escaped capture.

As the Serbian man was searched, a group of his friends at the nearby Serbian cafe complained that KFOR had detained the wrong man. They said the fight was caused -- in their words -- by "[ethnic] Albanian terrorists." Meanwhile, a Serbian employee of the cafe named Duka lay on the ground nearby, bleeding and in shock. Crowd of Serbs at cafe: "Terrorists. Albanian terrorists. They attacked the municipal building. Who is that guy who is injured? Shall we get him? No, no, no. He is our friend Duka. Duko, are you still alive? Let's go to take him away."

But ethnic-Albanian witnesses said it was the Serbs who began shooting after an Albanian man ventured too close to the property in front of the Serbian cafe. They appeared more concerned that KFOR troops recover the pistol that had been thrown into the tall grass beside the cafe than with any arrests being made.

"These people, they saw a Serbian guy throw away a pistol. It's (NATO's) responsibility to take away the guns, like they took him away in handcuffs, and to protect Albanians from being killed by that pistol. Tell them what I told you, because I'm not here to be popular on television. Tell this to NATO."

As British reinforcements arrived, a British officer launched an investigation into what had happened. He was the only KFOR soldier there who showed any kind of experience at gathering evidence for a criminal trial. As he questioned Serbs at the cafe, using interpreters, other British soldiers picked up spent shell casings, effectively eliminating any possibility of getting reliable fingerprint evidence from the ammunition.

A car in front of the cafe that had been hit in the radiator by a bullet was leaking anti-freeze on the sidewalk. The KFOR soldiers tracked through the coolant in their boots. Another car had a neat bullet hole in the front bumper. But after searching the cars for weapons, a British soldier told the Serbian owners of the cars to move their vehicles. That destroyed any chance of documenting the line-of-fire from the gunfight to use as evidence to check against witness accounts.

KFOR has a mandate to police Kosovo. But the British forces in Pristina are soldiers, not trained police investigators. While they have proven their ability to stop incidents of the looting and violence that continue to plague Kosovo, it is going to be some time before a fully functioning criminal justice system is established to fill the vacuum left by the flight of the Serbian civil administration here.