Serbs pull out ahead of deadline

 

The figure of a man loomed out of the blackness of the Kosovo evening, the only sign of life around one of dozens of fortified checkpoints abandoned yesterday by Serb forces in a spectacular pullout from the region.

For months the checkpoint at Komorane has been the focus of endless battles between Serb forces protecting the approaches to Pristina and guerrillas in the nearby hills, and the fighting has left surrounding houses in charred ruins and the tarmac covered in spent brass cartridges.

Now the white sandbags are gone, the blue prefabricated hut bulldozed to the side of the road and the area is deserted, unwanted by either side as Yugoslavia scrambles to meet today's NATO deadline to withdraw troops or face air strikes.

The man is Akil, a local farmer trudging to one of the few houses in the area still standing. He is not excited by the pull-out. "The Serbs have done this to us many times in the past," he says, leaning through the open car window. "What you see is just a mask. They have gone but they can as easily come back."

Across the province the feeling is the same, as Albanians stand by the sides of the main highways watching the convoys of armoured cars, trucks, buses and tanks on tank transporters rumble past.

This withdrawal was the centrepiece of the deal hammered out two weeks ago between the Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, and the US envoy, Mr Richard Holbrooke, under which NATO agreed to hold back on air strikes if the Yugoslavs stopped fighting in the province.

"Who is going to stop them coming back? NATO? After all that has happened we don't trust NATO," said Ardian Arifay, an editor at the main ethnic Albanian newspaper, Koha. "There will be no parties in Pristina tonight."

Western officials say that unless NATO keeps a realistic threat of bombing, the Serbs will be free to move back with tanks and guns now parked in local barracks.

But there is another problem. As the Serbs pulled out, the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army moved in. "We can't believe it, surely they've left booby traps or mines around here," said one camouflaged guerrilla holding a machine gun, near the smashed village of Dulje, scene of continual skirmishes in recent months.

Rebel units arrived in cars, crammed into the seats with antitank rocket launchers, north of the town of Malisevo, hours after Serb forces pulled out of bunkers there. Asked if they were seizing territory and provoking the Serbs they said no, that this was "crime prevention".

Back at Komorane, bright flashes in the distant sky and dull rumbles show that Serb artillery, unlike the checkpoints, is still active.

"There will be a break now, at least for the winter," says Akil, waving goodbye.

"But in the spring we will again be fighting them."