Serb forces launch offensive against Kosovo guerrillas Western diplomats end effort to broker cease-fire, fear conflict could spread

June 30, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELACEVAC, Yugoslavia -- Thousands of Serbian special police units and troops, backed by artillery and tanks, opened a series of attacks against separatist rebel positions yesterday.

Armored personnel carriers unleashed volleys at trenches and checkpoints held by lightly armed Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas in the mining town of Belacevac, six miles west of Pristina, the provincial capital. Serbian gunners also attacked Lapushnik, where rebels have barricaded the main road from Pristina to Pec, cutting off the Serb-held town of Kijevo for seven weeks.

The Serbs reported that an 8-year-old ethnic Albanian had been killed and a man wounded. More than 8,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Belacevac.

Western diplomats say the attacks end the latest diplomatic effort to negotiate a cease-fire and that the fighting could spread to new areas, including Pristina.

"The Serbs believe this is the final offensive," said a Western military observer. "But this is the third attempt since March by the Serbian security forces to wipe out the rebels. Each attempt has only brought an escalation of the fighting. So will this one."

U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, who spent four days last week trying to broker a cease-fire, called Kijevo "the most dangerous place in Europe," warning that a Serb effort to push into the town could lead to "a general war."

The police closed the main road from Pristina to Pec soon after dawn. Police on the road to Belacevac, northwest of Pristina, were joined by heavily armed Serb civilians, many of whom said they had been pushed out of their homes by the rebels in recent days. The Serbs, who jeered foreign reporters, appeared to be gathering to enter the mining town after the assault by the military and the police. Streams of residents were fleeing the fighting on foot.

"It is war," said one elderly woman, who did not want to give her name, as she clutched a small bag with a few belongings. "We have become Bosnia."

The decision by Belgrade to make a push against rebel positions follows efforts by the United States to broker a cease-fire and halt the fighting that erupted in the Serbian province in March. But neither Belgrade nor the rebel army, which controls about 40 percent of the province, were willing to make concessions.

NATO has threatened to carry out airstrikes if Belgrade does not withdraw its forces and end attacks, but there was no immediate indication that this latest assault would lead to intervention. There is also a concern among diplomats that continued fighting could set off a wider regional war that would draw in Albania and Macedonia.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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