A tall order to protect all Kosovars

A mortar attack shows the difficulties in preserving Kosovo's multiethnic society

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the top of the most-wanted list in the American sector of Kosovo is a suspect US troops have nicknamed the "Mad Mortar Man."

For weeks, peacekeepers say, an ethnic Albanian has terrorized the few Serbs remaining here by firing mortar shells randomly into Serbian villages, even as American forces have tried to hunt him down. US gunners once had him in their sights, but NATO rules forbade taking a shot, and he slipped away.

On Monday night in Klokot, where a Monitor reporter was on patrol with peacekeepers, the mortar shooter hit a target for the first time. Two Serbian teenagers were killed, five other Serbs were wounded, and Kosovo's cycle of violence - which NATO has vowed to stop - deepened further.

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The mandate of the 40,000-strong KFOR troops is to protect every person and preserve a multiethnic society. But the case of the mortar shooter, coupled with continuing anti-Serbian attacks, shows that achieving this lofty aim remains elusive, and may prove impossible.

"It's getting pretty hard to look these people in the eye and tell them we can do anything about it," says Lt. Col. Tim Reese, the US Army battalion commander for the most active area in the American sector. "The Serbs are very nervous. Every day they make a decision to stay or not to stay."

The 78 days of NATO airstrikes were meant to halt a three-month ethnic assault of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian security forces earlier this year. Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed, and more than 800,000 fled. For ordering that assault, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.

But NATO victory and the ethnic Albanian return caused most of the 200,000 Serbs in the province to flee, fearing revenge. The UN estimates that 46 Serbian and mixed villages remain, and that number is dwindling despite elaborate security efforts.

American forces thought that their sector, in the southeast part of the province, was one of the quieter parts of Kosovo. But it turns out that the patchwork groups of Serbs there make the ethnic map resemble a leopard skin, with each spot another problem.

Serbs here, says an American intelligence officer, are "hanging on by their fingernails."

Serbs have been killed under American military noses by ethnic Albanians, officers say, who are bent on intimidating Serbs to leave. Troops have found ethnic Albanians carrying radios and rebel Kosovo Liberation Army cards, and their cars smell of gas most likely used in arson attacks.

Just last Saturday, an elderly Serbian man was shot dead, sparking the exit of the last 20 Serbs from his village of Pozaranje.

"It is really a labor-intensive operation to protect these people," says Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in the provincial capital, Pristina. "They would have to put a soldier on every stairwell, in every doorway, and on every street corner to stop this from happening, and KFOR can't do it."

That is exactly what is happening in some cases, however, with soldiers living one on one with Serbs who have been threatened. "KFOR is making a valiant effort," says Mr. Redmond, "but can you stay with [these Serbs] forever?" (See story below.)

When the "Mad Mortar Man" struck Monday night, these issues came into sharp focus. At first there was the silence of the Kosovo night. Nearing the time of the 9:30 p.m. curfew imposed by American troops, it had spread over the trees and the fields, and in the nearly dark villages where soldiers stood watch.

Then the mortar fire began, disrupting the peace with nine rounds from a hip-fired 60-mm mortar tube. Soldiers craned their necks to pinpoint the flashes. The radio crackled: US troops based less than 100 yards from the impact point gave news of the dead.

Colonel Reese immediately ordered his soldiers into action. Spotters in high watchtowers tried to zero in on the coordinates of the attacker. Tanks rumbled to block roads, while soldiers searched cars and frisked drivers, who were forced onto their knees with hands on their heads.

Helicopters conducted thermal scans of nearby fields, looking for signs of heat that might betray the "Mad Mortar Man." But the attacker was gone.

"Here we go again," Reese's driver said, as the commander's Humvee sped toward the impact site. There, family members and friends gathered around the two dead.

US troops treated the wounded and loaded several onto stretchers to be flown out by helicopter to an American combat hospital. The intense fear and emotion felt by these Serbs was evident in the face of one of the victim's mothers, who could not control her grief.

Americans from the small nearby Warlord Base were affected too. "The boy used to stop by every day to see us, and ask, 'How are you guys do- ing?' " one soldier told another quietly, standing by the carnage. "Yeah," replied Lt. Ken Henson, a medic: "We've got to get that guy."

"It's depressing, because attacks are routine," said another US medic, after the helicopter evacuation. "There is nothing we can do for these people. We're rolling in tanks, while [the attackers] are on foot, in their own backyards."

Serbs at the scene agreed that earlier in the day, an ethnic Albanian man by the name of Gunar, from the nearby village of Radivojce, had come to a local bar and threatened violence against Serbs. "Just wait until tonight," he allegedly said.

After the mortar attack, young Serbian men vowed to be the first to find Gunar. According to the Americans, one said, "We just want you to know, we know this man and we are going to take care of it. We're going to kill him. We will pay them [ethnic Albanians] back."

But American officers stuck to their mandate and warned that the Serbs would be arrested if they took such action.

Reese, furthermore, was skeptical about the various accusations. In all the time his troops had been here, not one ethnic Albanian had ever given any intelligence about another, and no Serb had given a tip-off about another Serb. Allegations about the "enemy" group, however, flowed far too readily and were often mixed up in petty grievances.

Still, the colonel mounted an operation with 15 soldiers in a truck and more in a Humvee. In Gunar's ethnic Albanian town of Radivojce, tanks blocked the road, and the assault team searched his house, attached to which was a mechanic's workshop. They had been there before, and once three vehicles identified by Serbs as being involved in grenade attacks perfectly matched cars found here.

Gunar, wearing overalls stained with car grease, protested his innocence. A neighbor said he would vouch for his whereabouts all night. A thorough search yielded nothing, but Gunar and his brother were taken for questioning.

Sniffer dogs would start first, to find any trace of residue from explosives.

"A dry hole," sighed Reese, as the Americans finished their search. In light of so much violence, he was asked, will there be any Serbs left in this area in a year?

"If we can't do better than we are doing now, no," Reese said. "It takes only a single attack like this one to undo the good we have done. We'll keep trying, and we're getting smarter. We've cut down on random shootings, house burnings, and grenade throwing.

"But we've just got to figure out this guy with the mortar."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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