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June 6, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 348
On the spot

Metohija burning

by Zoran B. Nikolic

Sources close to the Serbian interior ministry said on June 3 in Pristina  that operations in Decani had been successfully completed. This meant the Pec-Decane-Djakovica road was finally open to traffic, it meant power and telephone links have been restored, it meant trucks carrying food could get to Decani, Babaloc and Yugoslav army units deployed along the Albanian border, it meant that over 100,000 refugees had returned to their homes. But the report was untrue and none of this actually happened.  A reporter who wanted to go to Pec and Decani on June 3 couldn't get clearance from the police to do so. Ethnic Albanian sources say that villages near Decani were still being shelled on June 2 around 2.30 p.m., while UNHCR and  Red Cross representatives in Albania confirmed that ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo kept flooding in. The Decani operation had several "endings" like the one mentioned, like on May 29th for example.

Three Serbian policemen have been killed, 10 were wounded and two are missing in the latest operation, described by some western observers as the  biggest armed operation since the Croatian "Storm" in 1995. It is impossible to determine the number of casualties among ethnic Albanians, but some of their sources say that a 12-year old boy and three women are among the victims. Ethnic Albanians say six children have been wounded and that many houses have been destroyed and torched.

There were a lot of skirmishes in Decani and the nearby villages until the second week of March, when a full-scale war broke out in the area. The  "Decani operation" began on May 23rd, when two Yugoslav army vehicles were attacked near the village of Prilep. As a result, the Decani-Djakovica  road was closed to all traffic. Two days later, passenger vehicles on the  Decane-Pec road came under fire near the village of Istnic. Decani was thus cut off from the rest of the world. Decani's Serb and Montenegrin population, as well as Yugoslav army units in the Huljaj barracks and the Morina border base, were running out of food. Clashes went on at both sides  of the Decani-Djakovica road in the first two months. Border patrols had  a hard time trying to stop the infiltration of manpower and arms from Albania, especially since the second week of April. Serbian police made several futile attempts to "sweep" the village of Glodjani, where local ethnic Albanians set up a base. Several miles further lay two villages with  an identical name - Babaloc, whose inhabitants are sworn enemies. Serbs and Montenegrins who live in 122 houses on the hill fled Albania in 1990.  They were persuaded by police to populate Babaloc and had their first conflict with the local ethnic Albanians in January 1996. Two ethnic Albanians from Decani were killed in a fierce fight that broke out. A village with 160 ethnic Albanian families is only three miles away. Shooting can be  heard in the village almost every evening. The Serb and Montenegrin refugees left Babaloc and went to Decani on April 20, but the authorities sent them back "home" as soon as they arrived.

After spending a month under siege, the few remaining Serb and Montenegrin families fled the Decani villages and left their cattle in the Visoki Decani monastery stables. Six Albanian and one Serbian school in the Decani municipality closed down in March while Serbian women and children were  evacuated late in April. Shops, bakeries, and pharmacies shut down soon afterwards as the fighting spilled over to the town. Some 200 Serbs and Montenegrins were trapped in Decani. Police troops, who control only a radius of 50 meters around their checkpoint in town and half a kilometer of the road to the monastery (which is guarded by the army), managed to evacuate 150 of them to Pec in the first few days. Only 500 ethnic Albanians were left in Decani as most of them fled too.

The Pec - Djakovica road was deserted after sunrise since the last week of April, but supplies to Yugoslav border guards were cut off when it was closed down completely. That put the border in jeopardy, which is why the police launched a counter-offensive on May 25, after an incident in the village of Streoci. Albanian sources say 11 villages near Decani were shelled that day while the village of Ljubenic was taken over. "They took men out of their homes and shot them", said an ethnic Albanian eyewitness.  Eight men were killed in the Hamza family alone. A police officer was shot by a sniper in Streoci and died the same evening. Fighting continued in  Decani itself and the town was shelled the next day. Ethnic Albanians say that the police deployed snipers on tall buildings but couldn't confirm  that they actually killed somebody. The two sides to the conflict were locked in stalemate two days later and the clashes spilled into Babaloc, where Serb refugees are still awaiting evacuation. Two policemen went missing in the village on May 25 and a young ethnic Albanian was killed two days later. Albanian sources say he died "defending his village". Fierce clashes continued on Friday, May 29, when a police outpost and a supply convoy were attacked. Police also came under fire in Streoci and the neighboring village Rastavica, which prompted them to launch a counter-offensive and push the back the assailants. The ethnic Albanians withdrew towards  the Albanian border to the west and the villages of Glodjani and Jablanica to the east. The pursuit went on all night. Police say that they found  bunkers with food and weapons in all villages they were fired at. Sub-surface hospitals equipped with gear missing from the Pristina hospital were found in Ljubenic and Celopek. Ironically, two Serb doctors were arrested when the theft in the Pristina hospital was discovered.

A convoy and a few buses managed to get through from Pec to Djakovica and  the police were quick to say that the operation had been successfully completed. Incidents, however, never stopped. Two policemen were wounded and two ethnic Albanians killed in Streoci on Saturday. Ethnic Albanians say that six children and two adults were wounded the same day in Istnic. Things went from bad to worse on Sunday. Police came under fire in Istnic,  Crnobreg, Beleg, and Vranoc, and one of them was died after sustaining fatal wounds. Police say they eliminated "scores of terrorists" in the counter-attack.

Ethnic Albanian sources say the police shelled Decani and destroyed many  houses that night. Nearby villages were shelled too and bodies were scattered in fields around Decani. An group of ethnic Albanian fighters was pushed back while another was surrounded in area lying between the villages  of Prilep and Rastavica. The group fought the police all night and the conflict escalated the next morning when reinforcements arrived from the nearby villages. The police still managed to push them back and then shelled Glodjane, Babaloc and the nearby villages. Fighting was reported in Junik, the biggest ethnic Albanian village along the border.

The supply convoy was attacked again on Tuesday at 4 a.m. A policeman was  killed during the attack in Crnobreg. The assailants were refuted and the police said once again that the mission had been accomplished. Pristina television crews arrived in Decani and broadcast "the return of life " to the town. They took shots of the center of the town, where no visible marks of fighting could be seen.

"This whole thing can end only if they burn down everything stretching five miles on both sides of the road, said an ethnic Albanian reporter from  Pristina. A local policeman shares his opinion. "We can either kill them  all or get out of here, there is no point in going on like this", he said.  Some ground is still unburned, but civilians as well as police are withdrawing from armed ethnic Albanian units. Refugees keep coming to Albania from the other side of Mt. Junik. People have been moving from one village to another seeking shelter, but police no longer control central Metohija and there are quite a few armed individuals among ethnic Albanian refugees. They clashed with the police near Malisevo on Monday and were forced to retreat towards Mt. Milanovac near Orahovac. The Yugoslav army appealed to the inhabitants of border villages to return to their homes in  an effort to separate the fighters from the unarmed population. The appeal was broadcast by Djakovica radio on the hour, but it is unlikely that the ethnic Albanians will respond. It is more likely that the flood of refugees will create even more tension in central Metohija. A Yugoslav army  unit deployed between Stimlje and Suva Reka was attacked on June 3. Another critical point on the map is Pec. The town is full of refugees while fierce fighting is in progress only two kilometers away in the village of Raocic, in the direction of Decani. Wherever you go to from Pec, you won't get very far. However, the objective of the Decani operation wasn't a permanent solution to the crisis. It is more likely that the goal was to secure communication with the border watchtowers and provide a three-day break. The second round of Serb-Albanian talks is due on June 5.  The ethnic Albanian party has threatened to boycott the talks if the Serbian regime continues with its repression, while the U.S. administration said it had no intention of tolerating any more violence. Therefore, it is very probable that there will be another compromise. Milosevic will offer a short break after a fierce offensive and Rugova will pretend that the repression has been ended. He can always say that Serbian television said so.

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