Kosovo Serbs mourn victims of bomb blast

Saturday, February 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Lighting candles and weeping, hundreds of Kosovo Serbs gathered Saturday in a cemetery to mourn the victims of a bus bombing that killed seven people and injured 43 others.

Mourners for the bomb victims mingled with other Serbs marking a traditional Orthodox Day of the Dead in the graveyard of the Serb enclave of Gracanica, where the attack _ the deadliest in more than a year _ raised fears of a resurgence of ethnic violence in Kosovo.

NATO peacekeepers were trying to head off any friction between Serbs and ethnic Albanians after the attack.

Thousands of Serbs gathered in Kosovska Mitrovica, a city in northern Kosovo sharply divided along ethnic lines where riots have broken out with some regularity. But Saturday's demonstrations went without incident. The protesters demanded the resignation of Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu, the commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, who they say has not done enough to guarantee Serbs' safety.

Meanwhile, forensic teams were examining the scene of the bomb blast outside the ethnic Albanian-majority town of Podujevo, and peacekeepers said a number of people were missing.

``There are several people unaccounted for, and given the ferocity of the incident, it is quite possible that the death toll will rise,'' Maj. Tim Pearce said.

The remote controlled bomb ripped apart the bus carrying Serb families from Serbia to Gracanica, where they planned to mourn relatives in commemoration of the Day of the Dead. The bus was part of a five-vehicle convoy escorted by NATO peacekeepers, and two armored personnel carriers full of Swedish troops passed safely over the bomb before it was detonated under the bus. NATO detained two ethnic Albanians near the scene.

``All of a sudden, everything burst, the bus seemed to have fallen apart,'' Gorica Stjepanovic, 24, said from her hospital bed in Kursumlija, a Serbian town just outside Kosovo. ``Blood was dripping from the roof.''

``Somebody's leg was hanging from the window,'' said Stjepanovic, her left eye bandaged and her clothes filthy from the blast. ``When I managed to get out, parts of bodies were everywhere.''

While the Yugoslav government declared a day of mourning, peacekeepers in Kosovo prepared for clashes, blocking roads in an effort to keep ethnic Albanian and Serb communities apart.

``We have taken all the measures to block any traffic through the Serb villages, in particular Albanian traffic, which could inflame the situation,'' said British Maj. Peter Cameron.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica urged Serbs ``not to fall into the trap of Albanian terrorists and respond with force to their crimes.'' He called on NATO to prevent Kosovo from becoming a place ``where fear and intimidation rule.''

There were fears that ethnic Albanian militants want to stir Serb anger and provoke a backlash that would undermine growing international support for Serbs in Kosovo and the reform-minded Serbian leadership in Yugoslavia.

Leaders from around the region condemned the attack, as did the U.S. State Department. The top U.S. official in Kosovo, Christopher Dell, issued a statement insisting that a ``democratic Kosovo cannot be built upon the blood of innocents.''

Kosovo's newspapers also expressed their outrage. The leading independent newspaper in Kosovo, Koha Ditore, summed up the attack in a banner headline: ``The death of Kosovo and Peace.''

Angry Serbs gathered Friday in Gracanica and in Caglavica, just south of Pristina. A Serb woman was killed after a car sped through a roadblock she and other Serbs set up, the independent Beta news agency reported.

Soon after, an ethnic Albanian-owned restaurant was set on fire and an ethnic Albanian bus was attacked.

On Saturday, Gracanica was tense but peaceful as Serbs gathered to mark the Orthodox Day of the Dead. Mourners for the new bombing victims mingled with others who came to mark the day in the traditional way, bringing food and drinks to share at the gravesides of their relatives.

Large-scale ethnic violence has generally ceased since mid-1999, when NATO peacekeepers took control of the Serbian province as part of a deal ending the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia and putting a stop to a Serb crackdown in Kosovo.

But ethnic tensions have continued. Kosovo's Serb minority has increasingly been targeted by members of the ethnic Albanian majority seeking to get even for the Serb crackdown. Most of Kosovo's 200,000 Serbs have fled the province.

Friday's attack was the deadliest since July 1999, when 13 Serb farmers were machine-gunned to death while tilling their fields south of Pristina.

Ethnic Albanians are pushing for independence for Kosovo after 10 years of repression under the rule of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.