US troops fled Serb mob and lost prisoner

Jonathan Steele

Thursday April 6, 2000

American troops were forced to release a suspect, abandon vehicles and trek over a mountain path to escape stone-throwing Serbs in the latest humiliation suffered by international peacekeepers in Kosovo.

As full details emerged yesterday of the worst clash involving US troops since they arrived last June, it became clear that Tuesday's incident in an area close to the Macedonian border amounted to a fiasco. It also showed how well the Serbs have set up a network of vigilantes who can mobilise crowds at short notice.

The trouble started after US military police and Polish troops entered the isolated Serb village of Sevce to search the home of a man detained for illegal possession of two hand grenades. His neighbours quickly pulled logs across the only road out of Sevce and fighting broke out.

The Americans called up reinforcements but before they could arrive were forced to abandon their vehicles and trek through a narrow canyon to the next settlement, Jacinze.

"There were Serbs up on the sides of the canyon throwing rocks," Major Debbie Allen, a US spokeswoman, said. The mile-and-a-half walk took the soldiers two hours.

At Jacinze the peacekeepers joined up with the reinforcements who had arrived by helicopter, and there was fighting with some 300 Serbs. The peacekeepers fired rubber bullets and used stun grenades and dogs. In the melee, a Serb woman dragged the arrested man away from the troops. "The man escaped," another US military spokesman said yesterday, adding that the villages were now calm. The abandoned military vehicles and equipment were retrieved.

The incident follows a clash last month when stone-throwing Serbs, organised by men with walkie-talkies, forced US troops to cut short an arms search in northern Mitrovice. That was in the French sector of Kosovo, and the Pentagon later said that US troops would be confined to their own region in south-eastern Kosovo, except in emergencies.

Tension has been high between the Serbs and Americans because the US led the Nato air strikes, but there is mounting suspicion that the Serbs want to highlight the chaos in Kosovo during the US presidential campaign. George W Bush, the Republican front-runner, has hinted that he might withdraw US troops.

US efforts to restrain armed former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army from crossing into southern Serbia have also suffered a set-back. An agreement brokered by US diplomats with Hashim Thaci, the political leader of the now dissolved KLA, has broken down, and Albanian paramilitaries have again been spotted in Serbia by US monitors.

The gunmen claim they are defending Albanians from the threat of Serb repression, but their avowed aim is to join the region to Kosovo.

Original article