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Gypsies Under Attack in Kosovo

June 29, 1999

PEC, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanians seeking revenge for atrocities committed against them in Kosovo aren’t just targeting Serbs. They are attacking the province’s Gypsies, accusing them of helping Serbs loot homes and dispose of bodies from mass killings.

Untold thousands of Kosovo’s Gypsy minority have fled since the end of the NATO bombardment. Ethnic Albanians accuse Gypsies, also known as Roma, of joining with the Serbs in the crackdown that prompted NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians claim Serbs often paid Roma to dig mass graves or dispose of the corpses of massacre victims.

``They said Roma burned their homes, but they didn’t. It was the Serbs. We are innocent,″ Nuri Gashi, a 54-year-old Gypsy, said last week in the western city of Pec as her ethnic Albanian neighbors looted and burned other Roma homes around her.

The newly returned refugees had come back to the neighborhood to find the bodies of 17 ethnic Albanians in the yards and rooms of their burned houses.

Survivors of the May 10 massacre in the quarter said two Roma men had killed alongside Serb paramilitaries.

``They did awful things,″ said Kosovo Liberation Army soldier Nazmi Latifi, summoning onlookers away from the burning Gypsy houses to show them the newly dug graves and unburied corpses of the massacre victims.

Many of the neighborhood’s 100 Gypsy households fled with Serb civilians when Yugoslav soldiers withdrew earlier this month.

Arson and threats chased out the rest by late last week, leaving only Gashi, her husband, Shaban, 62, and three other Gypsies.

``All Roma, they did not behave as well as these two,″ said ethnic Albanian Selim Salihi, nodding at the Gashis.

Frightened by repeated KLA visits to their home, Shaban Gashi said: ``We have no money, no where else to go.″

Since the war, widespread attacks on Gypsies have included Roma men found beaten in KLA custody in Pristina, Gypsy men found with their throats cut in Pec, and countless arsons that have consumed even the mansions of Roma leaders in the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

Even during the war, ethnic Albanians in refugee camps outside Kosovo attacked Roma refugees on occasion, claiming they recognized them as participants in Serb atrocities.

On Tuesday, a Roma man was in a Pec jail taken over by Italian NATO forces, brought in by KLA soldiers who wanted him investigated as a war crimes suspect.

Preliminary evidence indicated the man was an informant for Serbian police, Italian officers said, refusing to identify the man.

The man was the only known war crimes suspect to be held in the area.

Throughout eastern Europe, Gypsies, who have lived for centuries on the fringes of societies, are a large but often despised minority, blamed for thefts and other petty crimes. In Yugoslavia, Gypsies traditionally have tried to keep a low profile, stay out of politics and avoid trouble with the authorities.

U.N. refugee workers say it’s impossible to determine how many Roma have fled Kosovo, or even how many lived here before the war.

For a few days following the peace accord, Roma were the people seen most often in western Kosovo’s villages _ after Serb civilians withdrew and before ethnic Albanians returned.

Their homes were the only ones left unburned by Serbs in some villages, spared because of the ``Romi″ spray painted, probably by ethnic Albanians, on the doors or gates. When ethnic Albanians returned, the same scrawled designations made them targets.

``Basically, they’ve always been accused as allies of the Serbs. In the old pecking order, they were higher than the Albanians, and as a result, they’re coming under a lot of pressure now,″ said Judith Kumin, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Geneva.

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