Serb forces cut a bloody swath through Kosovo Town, 10 villages reportedly sealed off as dozens are killed

Thousands flee to Albania

June 03, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Kosovo descended further yesterday into a level of violence that many Western governments have long feared could trigger a greater Balkan war.

According to reports from various sources, heavily armed Serbian military and police units under the control of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic cut a swath of destruction through the town of Decani and 10 surrounding villages near the Albanian border. The area is home to 65,000 mostly ethnic Albanians.

The Serbian campaign appeared to be aimed at quashing the separatist movement of ethnic Albanians in Serbia's once autonomous province. Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population of 2.2 million.

Diplomats in the region were alarmed by reports from a human rights worker in the Decani area who said Serbian units shelled homes, let the survivors leave, and then set fire to the empty buildings using flame throwers. The 15-hour operation ended at 10 a.m. yesterday. Serbian authorities closed the area to aid workers, outside observers and the media.

Reporters who left Pristina in a an effort to reach the Decani area were stopped by police less than three miles from the provincial capital and ordered to return.

U.S. officials are investigating the report of the Decani assaults and will attempt first-hand observations of the area as early as today, sources said.

"Clearly, thousands of people have left the area," said a Western diplomat who focuses on Kosovo. The diplomat, who would not be identified for attribution, said the majority of refugees were women and children, who were streaming toward the mountainous, lightly defended border with Albania.

Officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were trying to rush supplies to the border to deal with the growing refugee problem. More than 2,000 refugees arrived in Albania on Sunday and Monday, and hundreds more arrived yesterday. Others are taking shelter in the mountains, they said.

'Liquidating dozens'

"The refugees speak of heavy mortar, tank and machine gun fire and fleeing a hail of bullets. Serb sources speak of eliminating or liquidating dozens of terrorists," Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman, told Reuters in Geneva.

Albania's ATA news agency said 200 refugees had arrived in villages in northern Albania overnight and about 500 more were believed on the move in mountainous areas on the Albanian side of the border.

Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have become increasingly concerned the renewed violence in Kosovo could trigger a wider Balkan war.

They have stepped up planning for ways to prevent the fighting from spreading to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, where a NATO delegation is due today and where a 750-member U.N. peacekeeping mission already is operating.

Kosovo's mountainous 85-mile border with the northern part of Albania is particularly tense, with weapons and mercenaries reportedly streaming into the troubled Serbian province, while refugees make their way out.

Military experts have said it would take up to 20,000 NATO troops to seal the border. NATO foreign ministers have agreed to bolster technical assistance with Albania and conduct a joint military exercise there in mid-August.

The latest outbreak of violence raised anxiety in a province where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

200 killed

Since February, more than 200 people, mostly civilians, have been killed as Serbian forces tried to eliminate an increasingly active guerrilla campaign by ethnic Albanians seeking independence for the province. Most ethnic Albanians favor independence for Kosovo, while Serbs view the province as the cradle of their nation.

Albania, which is struggling with a collapsed economy, is seeking to restore autonomy to the province, rather than pushing for its independence. Most parties engaged in attempts to stop the fighting also favor autonomy over independence.

The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army reportedly controlled as much as 40 percent of the province, digging trenches and building other rudimentary fortifications. But lightly armed and spread too thin, the insurgents have apparently been no match for Serbian forces in the latest assaults.

Talks resume Friday

Milosevic's ultimate goal remains unclear. Some observers say the Yugoslav president is looking to strengthen his bargaining position at fledgling peace talks between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders and Yugoslav officials. Those talks are to resume Friday.

Others say Milosevic could be maneuvering for an eventual partitioning of Kosovo, with the Serbs trying to gain control of mineral-rich areas.

The fighting has been fierce.

The Serbian-controlled media center in Pristina said four policemen were wounded in clashes Monday with armed groups of ethnic Albanians firing automatic weapons and mortars. The media center reported one policeman killed yesterday.

Ethnic Albanians say the fighting is directed at civilians. "We are witnessing ethnic cleansing in Decani," said Blerim Shala, editor of the Albanian weekly Zeri.

The Albanian-language daily newspaper Koha obtained what may be the most graphic evidence of the violence -- pictures allegedly taken May 25 after killings of civilians in Ljubenic, south of Pec.

Pictured were eight men gunned down at close range. Some were shot in the head. Others in the back. Seven of eight burial markers were from one family, named Hamzaj.

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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