Yugoslav rebels take first city in Kosovo Ethnic Albanians say they have firepower to hold it against Serbs

July 20, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ORAHOVAC, Yugoslavia -- In what could be the beginning of a significant new phase of the fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo, ethnic Albanian separatists said yesterday that they had taken Orahovac, their first city, and that they would use their newly acquired weapons to keep it.

Serbian forces counterattacked yesterday afternoon, but the separatist forces seemed confident and continued heavy firing against what they said were the remaining four government positions in the city.

No matter what the outcome of this battle, the separatists of the Kosovo Liberation Army are once again showing that international efforts to support ethnic Albanian political leaders who want to end the conflict with negotiations may fail. The politicians have little influence over the insurgents, who are armed with artillery and surface-to-air missiles that they say are smuggled in, and they increasingly believe they can win militarily.

"This is the first step taken to intensify the quality of the war from warfare against rural areas to the stage of moving against urban areas," said the ethnic Albanian commander of the attack, who would give only his nom de guerre, Snake. He said the insurgents' strategy was to take over other cities and eventually capture the provincial capital, Pristina.

Tall columns of smoke twisted into the sky yesterday from Orahovac, whose population is estimated at 20,000. Cannon fire came in spurts. Serbian artillery rounds sent ethnic Albanian soldiers toppling over one another for cover in houses and bunkers, but Albanian officers said their forces were returning fire with artillery.

On hills at the edge of the city, where the houses overlook patches of dark green and lime-colored crops, sniper bullets whizzed through short stalks of corn. Ethnic Albanian civilians, who said their homes were being hit by Serbian shells, were fleeing the city. They inched sideways, their backs hard against building walls, then dodged across open spaces as they tried to get away from the fighting.

Western military observers said that if the rebels have the weapons they claim to have, they might be able to keep control of this city.

The population of Kosovo is about 90 percent ethnic Albanians, many of whom want an independent country. Serbia and Montenegro are the only two republics remaining in Yugoslavia. Kosovo was once semi-autonomous, but Serbia revoked that status in 1989.

Recently, under pressure from Western governments, the Yugoslav forces have reduced larger-scale attacks on rebel areas.

Some foreign officials have said the government forces behaved so brutally against civilians that their actions encouraged people to join or openly support the rebels.

Now, however, some foreign diplomats say Serbian reluctance to order soldiers to retake territory is leading the rebels to assume they have little to fear from government forces.

Support for the insurgents began to grow early this year as many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo said they had lost faith in the ability of their political leaders to find a way to make the Serbian government give them autonomy.

The insurgents have made surprising military advances. After six months of fighting, they contend that they control about 40 percent of the territory of Kosovo, although the figure is disputed.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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