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Kosovo Albanians Return Home

July 27, 1999

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Exhausted but excited, the first group of Kosovo Albanian refugees to return from the United States finally reached their homeland today, eager to resume lives interrupted by war.

``It’s like a rebirth,″ Eshref Latifi, 49, said after arriving in Kosovo. ``I may not be showing it on the outside, but this is my biggest happiness.″

The nearly 300 refugees flew to neighboring Macedonia and then were bused to Kosovo’s provincial capital, Pristina, where many were greeted with long embraces from relatives who hadn’t seen them for months.

Latifi, who spent time at Fort Dix, N.J., and then St. Louis, said the refugees were tired after flying all night. But their excitement was evident as soon as their plane arrived in Skopje, where they piled happily into buses for the short trip home.

``You can never feel better than in your homeland,″ said Shukran Fushnica, 45, one of an extended family of 15 on the plane, which arrived from New York.

The refugees got a jarring early reminder of the harsh reality of life in Kosovo. During a stop at a roadblock about 20 miles southwest of Pristina, a loud explosion sounded off the road, sending them back into the buses at the urging of an immigration official.

The reason for the blast wasn’t immediately clear _ it likely was a controlled explosion by NATO peacekeepers who now patrol the province. The buses then proceeded to Pristina, where they were met by a small but emotional crowd at the bus station.

Most of the ethnic Albanians returning from the United States were headed for homes in the capital, while others traveled on to other towns.

Tensions in the province have been especially high since Friday’s killings of 14 Serb farmers near the farming village of Gracko, 10 miles south of Pristina. NATO security remained tight in and around the village.

International officials, however, asserted that the slayings did not derail efforts to steer the province back to normalcy after more than a year of bloodshed.

Doctors finished their autopsies on the 14 bodies today, and the funerals were scheduled for Wednesday. While British troops kept watch, Serbs from elsewhere in Kosovo mowed the grass in the cemetery and dug the graves today. Serbian Orthodox Church leaders, including Patriarch Pavle, began arriving for the burials.

The victims had as many as 10 bullet wounds and it appeared most were shot by Kalashnikov rifles, Dr. Fadil Batalli said.

Italian Capt. Gianluca Corsini, a military pathologist who supervised the autopsies, said that because of the way the bodies were found in a circle, it appeared the victims were trying to flee when they were shot.

The killings _ which Gracko villagers blamed on ethnic Albanians _ have increased fear among Kosovo’s dwindling Serb population, prompting more than 20 Serbs to request escorts to flee the province.

More than 100,000 Serbs are believed to have fled the province since the end of the NATO air campaign, leaving no more than about 60,000 behind.

Meanwhile, peacekeepers disclosed today the discovery of an ammunition dump containing 150,000 machine gun rounds, anti-tank mines, mortar rounds, grenades and two machine guns.

A German patrol found the ammunition Saturday in the southwestern village of Kusnin, near Prizren, said Maj. Jan Joosten, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force.

Local commanders of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army called the dump an oversight, acknowledged that it violated a disarmament agreement and apologized, Joosten said.

Mission commander Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson accepted the explanation, and the Germans removed the ammunition to a protected storage site, Joosten said.

Tension in Kosovo did not seem to deter the refugees returning from the United States.

About 9,700 refugees were brought to the United States beginning in May, when attacks by Serb forces prompted an exodus of an estimated 860,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo.

In addition to the 300 arriving from the United States, another estimated 1,000 refugees who had been living in seven other countries returned today.

Fushnica said her family stayed with relatives in the borough of Staten Island in New York City for seven weeks. The family decided to return on the advice of a son who went home to Pristina a month earlier, she said.

``It was good, but home is better,″ she said.

Harie Zeta, who stayed in the New York borough of Brooklyn said she was coming home to uncertainty, ``but I hope everything is OK.″

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