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Serbs Set Fires As They Withdraw

June 14, 1999

PEC, Yugoslavia (AP) _ After a final spree of burning, shooting and alleged rapes, Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo’s border region with Albania on Monday, their country’s flag flying high, whooping and giving parting mock salutes to a citizenry devastated by war.

``We are finishing up,″ a Serb officer said, turning journalists back a few yards from the smoking flames of a newly torched home in Pec’s gutted old ethnic Albanian neighborhood.

``Greater Albania,″ proclaimed a sign written in Serbian, stuck next to a burning brick house on a heavily used rebel route toward Albania.

As they withdrew, Serbs set alight buildings on both sides of the two-lane road between Djakovica and Pec, often within a few hundred feet of the armored convoys of newly arrived NATO forces.

After celebrating the NATO troops’ arrival on Sunday, the remaining population of the gutted city of Djakovica marked the exit of Serb troops Monday. They celebrated their newfound freedom, wheeling around on rickety bikes through streets strangely empty of cars.

Small crowds went on looting sprees, pillaging food, alcohol and furnishings from what had been a Serb-only store and the hotel headquarters of Serb security forces. Broken glass littered the street in front of the hotels, left by looters who had tried to carry away crates of beer on bikes.

``I’ll drink to the Serbs, because this is a big day,″ said Stikumbin Lluka, 24.

Looters said the goods were originally stolen by Serbs from the city’s ethnic Albanians.

Djakovica was among the hardest-hit cities in Kosovo’s fighting, targeted well before the NATO bombing started March 24. International organizations have yet to put together a tally of the city’s dead; a cemetery worker, speaking on condition his name not be used, said he buried as many as 200 people, slain in mass killings of up to 70 at a time.

Free to move about now, residents desperately sought word of 1,000 men taken away by Serb forces on May 7-10.

Djakovica’s people said Serb paramilitary troops went on a rampage Saturday, after the peace deal and two days before their withdrawal. Masked fighters burned buildings and raped several women, said Binakaj Azgon, who said his daughter was among the women taken away.

``It was the worst day,″ resident Shinasi Gojani said.

In contrast to Sunday’s exultant welcome for the NATO troops, only a few Serb civilians turned out Monday to clap and cheer the retreating Yugoslav forces.

The Serb forces pulled out in convoys of more than 100 vehicles _ dilapidated tanks, buses, armored personnel carriers plastered with porn photographs, private vehicles piled with luggage. Troops in cowboy hats and bandanas careened through Djakovica in open Jeeps, whooping and giving a mocking tip of the index finger to a people who largely ignored them.

``They are animals,″ said Arber Morina, 14, standing in front of his burned home.

The withdrawal started along a road leading from the western border with Albania, where fighting between Kosovo Liberation Army rebels and Serb forces has been bloody for more than a year. The Yugoslav army asked for protection from rebels as they withdrew, local NATO officers said.

``We want your mission to be successful, in the interest of all the people of Yugoslavia,″ a military commander, identified only as Lt. Col. Sekulic, told NATO Gen. Mauro Delvecchio over a handshake marking a formal handoff of a western region stretching from Kosovska Mitrovica to Decane.

``We believe it’s the right time for peace for this region,″ Delvecchio said.

``We hope so,″ the Serb officer replied.

The gutted, scorched homes of the region’s ethnic Albanian majority lined the 20-mile route from Djakovica to Pec, their owners killed or fled. Except for Gypsy or Serb-owned homes, the destruction was complete.

Only a few of what had once been Pec’s ethnic Albanian majority were left by the war; most Serb residents of the southern city fled before the NATO troops arrived.

A few dozen Serbs turned out to watch Monday’s handshake handoff between the Serb military and NATO, hoping for information that would help them decide whether to go or stay. An Orthodox priest paced among the mostly elderly Serbs in front of the municipal building where NATO and Serb officers conferred.

``If they promise it will be OK, I will stay,″ said Predrag Doncic, one of those waiting for reassuring words from some military. ``But all my stuff is packed, and ready to go.″

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