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Yugoslavia: KFOR Shooting Underscores Albanian Tensions In Zym

Two weeks ago, a German KFOR patrol came under fire in a western Kosovo village that is home to both Albanian Catholics and recently returned Albanian Muslims. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele visited the village of Zym and spoke with residents there.

Zym, Kosovo; 31 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Has region in western Kosovo is one of just a few enclaves of Albanian Catholics, ethnic Albanians who did not convert to Islam during the more than five centuries of Ottoman rule in the region. The Has village of Zym near the Albanian border is usually home to some 1,000 residents, but on August 15, the village was also hosting Albanian Catholics from other parts of Kosovo to celebrate Assumption Day, a key feast day in the Roman Catholic calendar. Several hours after midnight, the residents and pilgrims were awakened by automatic weapons fire directed at a German KFOR patrol in Zym. One soldier was hit, but his bullet-proof vest saved him from injury.

The attackers fled, leaving behind an assortment of weapons, including a grenade launcher. The German KFOR spokesman in Prizren, Lt. Col. Peter Michalski, told RFE/RL that it appears the attackers were intending to strike the Catholic church in the center of the village in an attempt to prevent the Assumption Day procession. He says the attackers were apparently surprised by the German patrol.

The incident reflects lingering tension between Albanian Catholics and their Muslim brethren in Zym. Catholics stayed in the village during the war, but the Muslims were expelled by Serbian forces.

Last March, a week after NATO began pummeling Yugoslavia with air strikes, several dozen Serbian police (MUP) arrived in Zym from Prizren. The village's Montenegrin police chief, Milisav Scekic, told the inhabitants that all 39 Albanian Muslim families in the village must leave at once for Albania, while the Catholic residents could remain in Zym.

The local Catholic priest, Don Ivan Collakovic, says he asked Scekic to permit the Muslims to remain, but the police chief said he was "sorry, but that the orders came from above." Muslim resident Sutki Collaku says that Scekic came to his house and told the whole family to leave for Albania immediately.

"We were surprised since we had had good relations with our (Catholic) neighbors and so we wondered why they (the police) were dividing us."

Recounting the story as the village church bells ring, Collaku says his family left with all six of their tractors.

"It was really hard to abandon our homes. We released our cows into the fields and took some basic necessities but left behind freshly baked bread."

Minutes after they left, the Muslims saw smoke rising from the village as the Serbs set fire to Muslim homes. The families all made it to Albania unharmed.

A local Catholic schoolteacher, Nikolle Kerhanaj, says that after the Muslims left, the police took some of the Catholic residents off for interrogation and warned them that the villagers were not to harbor insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) or any other "outsiders."

Several days later, the militia (MUP) force withdrew from Zym and repositioned itself along one of the main exodus routes to Albania.

The area around Zym is of strategic importance and was the scene of a turning point in the war. Mount Pastrik, near Zym, overlooks the main road into Kosovo from Albania, and Yugoslav military forces had hidden large numbers of tanks and artillery nearby during the air strikes to prepare for a possible NATO ground invasion. In what may have been the bloodiest battle of the campaign, UCK insurgents drew the Yugoslav tanks and artillery out of the forests in late May, exposing them to devastating NATO air strikes. Hours after NATO announced that several hundred Serbian soldiers had been killed in its attacks on Pastrik, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic finally agreed to NATO's conditions for ending the air strikes.

Muslim residents began to return to Zym in late June, only to find that some of their houses had been burned and others looted. When they asked their Catholic neighbors what had happened, in Kerhanaj's words, "We had some misunderstandings."

"The first misunderstanding was a suspicion that we (Catholics) had collaborated with the Serb authorities. We tried to explain that it was the Serb regime's intention to divide us to show the world that the whole (Albanian) population of Kosovo had not been expelled."

The village priest has a different explanation as to why the Serbs kept the Albanian Catholics in the town. Don Ivan says the Serbs used the villagers as human shields for the tanks and artillery hidden in the nearby forests.

"Certainly, there was a special tactic spelled out in some documents which were discovered after the end of the NATO bombings and the liberation. They (the Serbs) had intended to keep us as hostages in front of NATO and then to set conditions."

Just who committed the attack on the German KFOR unit is still unknown. Muslim resident Sutki Collaku says no one from his Muslim neighborhood or any other part of the village could have been involved in the incident. As he puts it, "It must have been outsiders." He says he has no idea why anyone would have done this.

But the schoolteacher, Kerhanaj, puts forward the theory that Kosovar Albanian Muslims, suspecting Zym's Catholics of having collaborated with the Serbs, may have staged the attack as a reprisal.

A UN civilian police officer in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he has no doubt that UCK is to blame.

However, UCK's information officer for the Has region, Nexhat Cocaj, told RFE/RL that he is "100 percent certain" that no one from UCK was involved in the incident. He also rejects the suggestion that the attack was staged by local Albanian Muslims against their Catholic neighbors. Rather, as he puts it, "KFOR knows the truth -- there are probably some collaborators of the Serb regime" in Zym. Cocaj says UCK and the German KFOR unit are working together to solve the case.