London (CNSNews.com) - Ethnic Albanian militants have been blamed for the bombing of a bus carrying Serbs into Kosovo Friday morning, killing at least seven Serbs and hurting some 40 others.
The bus was the first of a convoy of seven being escorted by troops from the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, media officer Flight Lt. Neil Tomlin said by telephone from Pristina.
He said it appeared that the bomb had been hidden in a drain and detonated by remote control as the bus went over it, shortly after entering the United Nations-administered province.
The remaining six buses had managed to turn around and quickly leave the area, under escort, he said.
It was the second attack on a bus carrying Serbs in four days. On Tuesday, a gunman opened fire on a bus near the town of Strpce, killing a Serb man and wounding two children.
Tomlin agreed that to his knowledge this was the first detonation of a remote controlled device in the area.
The "Nis Express" is a convoy of buses traveling between the city of Nis in Serbia and Kosovo, taking Serbs who earlier fled the majority ethnic Albanian province to visit the graves of relatives there.
"Normally it's a convoy of coaches, with KFOR escorts front and rear in vehicles."
On Friday, Tomlin said, the troops had been traveling in six-wheeler Caesar armored vehicles. The convoy was bound for the Serb-majority town of Podujevo.
Tomlin said the death toll stood at seven dead, 10 seriously injured and 30 to 40 others hurt. Those killed or wounded were among the around 60 passengers aboard the bus. None of the Swedish KFOR peacekeepers had been hurt, he added.
Some of the injured were airlifted to nearby hospitals by helicopter.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson called the bombing "disgraceful and cowardly."
"NATO did not conduct its  air campaign in order to see ethnic cleansing by one group replaced by the ethnic attacks and intimidation of another," he said in a statement issued from Brussels. "We will not tolerate ethnic violence and will not rest until the perpetrators of this appalling crime have been apprehended."
Robertson challenged Albanian Kosovar leaders to condemn the attack, and warned that Kosovo should not take the financial support of the international community for granted.
"It is up to the leaders of Kosovo themselves to join with the international community to build a multi-ethnic society that protects the rights of all its citizens."
He also announced that KFOR was reviewing its procedures for convoy security.
In the context of Kosovo's current situation, there seemed little doubt as to who was behind the bombing.
A Bosnian Serb news agency, SRNA, quoted KFOR sources as saying "Albanian extremists" were responsible for the attack.
Belgrade's independent B92 radio also reported that "Albanian terrorists" carried out the bombing.
It quoted a representative of the Yugoslav Committee for Kosovo as saying terrorists were using the convoy attacks "as the means for the realization of an independent Kosovo."
Since the U.N. took over the temporary administration of the southern Serb province after the army withdrew following a violent campaign against ethnic Albanian Kosovars, Albanian militants pushing for independence from Belgrade have mounted a number of attacks on Serbs, apparently aimed at purging the area of the minority group.
The use of a remote-controlled device of the type used to devastating effect by Mideast terrorist groups like Hizballah comes as little surprise.
Militant Albanian Muslims in Kosovo have long been suspected of links to Islamic terror groups from the Middle East.
The government of former President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 charged that members of the Kosovo Liberation Army militia had attended terrorist training camps in countries like Lebanon, Sudan and Afghanistan, and that "a significant number of mujahedin fighters from various Islamic countries are also fighting alongside the KLA."
Western intelligence reports, too, linked the subsequently disbanded KLA to Islamic terror organizations, and said it armed itself largely with funds earned from smuggling drugs to European markets.
Robert Gelbard, a former U.S. special representative in the Balkans, on several occasions stressed that he regarded the KLA as a "terrorist group," although the State Department never officially designated it as such.
The KLA was reconstituted in September 1999 into a civilian "protection corps" with strict restrictions on the number of side arms members could use.
But indications that Muslim militants were still involved in the area have continued. Last April NATO confirmed it was investigating reports that the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had entered Kosovo. KFOR raided a Saudi charity operating in the province after being tipped off by U.S. officials that it may have links to Bin Laden and may be planning terror attacks.
Over the past year a new militant group, styling itself an offshoot of the KLA, has been active in neighboring southern Serbia, fighting Serb police units in the majority ethnic Albanian Presevo valley.