PODUJEVO, Yugoslavia — A remote control bomb ripped apart a bus carrying Serb families into Kosovo today, killing at least seven people and severely injuring 10 more, NATO peacekeepers said, in one of the worst attacks since the end of the Kosovo war.
The Serb families, escorted by NATO peacekeepers, were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves of their ancestors when the bomb was detonated — just after two armored personnel carriers full of Swedish troops passed safely over the device.
The blast went off soon after the bus, coming from the city of Nis in Serbia, crossed into Kosovo and passed Podujevo, an Albanian-majority town.
The bus was left a hulk of twisted metal, with shreds of clothing visible inside and charred wreckage thrown to both sides of the road — including school texts and notebooks with children's handwriting scrawled on them.
No details on the seven dead or the wounded were immediately available. Peacekeepers were keeping reporters away, saying bodies remained in the wreckage. The injured were taken to hospitals around Podujevo, 25 miles northeast of Kosovo's capital Pristina.
The bus was part of a five-vehicle convoy carrying some 250 people, accompanied by five Swedish armored personnel carriers and a medical detachment, said peacekeepers.
The bus company that chartered the vehicles to the Serbs said they were en route to Gracanica, just south of Pristina. The families — Kosovo Serbs who had left the province fearing ethnic Albanian attack — were planning to visit graves of relatives on Saturday, the Orthodox Day of the Dead celebration and tour an Orthodox church and monastery.
"This is an act of ruthless, premeditated murder," Brig. Gen. Rob Fry, the commander of the British troops in the region, told a reporter.
The 100-200 pounds of explosives were detonated by remote control from a point about a mile away, Fry said. Two Swedish personnel carriers drove over the charge before it was set off, he said.
Peacekeepers said some people in the vicinity of the blast had been detained for questioning.
"There was a huge explosion and then the black smoke going as high as 30 meters (yards)," said Bequir Fetahu, 50, a villager from Podujevo, who was on a nearby hill tending his cows when the bus was rocked by the explosion.
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 NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia and putting a stop to a Serb crackdown in Kosovo.
But interethnic tensions have continued. Increasingly, Kosovo's Serb minority has been targeted by members of the ethnic Albanian majority seeking to get even for the Serb crackdown. Many of the province's 200,000 Serbs have fled the province.
In a similar assault a year ago, a rocket attack on a U.N. bus killed two Serb civilians and wounded another three southwest of the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica.
Today's attack was the deadliest since July 1999, when 13 Serb farmers were machine-gunned to death while tilling their fields south of Pristina.
More recent attacks could also be tied to attempts by radical ethnic Albanians to goad Serbs into violence, in a move to counter increasing foreign support both for the Serb community within Kosovo and the new, reform-minded Serb leadership in Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, ethnic Albanian extremists operating in a buffer zone in southern Serbia just outside Kosovo kidnapped four Serbs on Friday, said Serbian Information Minister Biserka Matic.
Kosovo Serbs frequently travel north to Serbia proper to shop, normally under NATO protection. Kosovo remains formally part of Serbia, the main republic in Yugoslavia.
Ethnic Albanians are pushing for independence for Kosovo after 10 years of repression under the rule of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
— Arizona Daily Sun