Serbs ready to escalate fighting in Kosovo Major assault expected to open rebel-held roads

June 27, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PRISTINA, Serbia -- Belgrade has ordered its military and special police to mount large-scale attacks in Kosovo to recapture pockets held by ethnic Albanian rebels and reopen roads the separatist rebels have blocked for weeks, western diplomats and military officials said yesterday.

The escalation of the fight against the rebels came as Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy, left Pristina empty-handed after four days of shuttle talks with the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and ethnic Albanian leaders.

"We all agree that we are at a dangerous moment and our goal remains to prevent the fighting that's already going on from escalating to a general war," Holbrooke said.

There appeared to be little left that western diplomats could do to prevent the assault, given the intransigence of the insurgents and the determination of Milosevic to retake the main arteries in the province.

Diplomats said they feared the attacks, which could begin within hours or days, might lead to further fighting beyond the borders of the province and could usher in a low-intensity war that could last for years.

Holbrooke had hoped to secure an agreement from the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels to take down barricades along main routes. He had planned to use the reopening of the roads as leverage to get Milosevic to call off an attack against the insurgents by the 50,000 special police and troops deployed in Kosovo. But the rebels, who say they will fight until they have achieved their goal of an independent state, rebuffed Holbrooke.

The rebels' lack of a central command made it difficult for Holbrooke to be sure his message had reached the top rebel authorities. He asked Adem Demaci, a militant political leader who openly supports the rebel movement, to pass on a message for him, but Demaci was unsure whom to contact, western diplomats said.

Holbrooke warned yesterday that a siege by the ethnic Albanian rebels around Kijevo, a Serbian town cut off for over a month by the rebels, would not be tolerated much longer by Belgrade.

The outpost, on the main east-west road between Pristina and the western, Serbian-dominated town of Pec, is under daily attack and food is scarce. He called the village "the most dangerous place in Europe" because a battle to liberate the town by the Serbs could trigger a wider war.

He warned that in their talks Milosevic had repeatedly asserted "the right to keep the roads in his country open."

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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