In Pristina, a grim march, then a train to Macedonia

Ethnic Albanians herded from homes in apparent spread of Serbian purge

War In Yugoslavia

April 01, 1999|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Herded by Yugoslav soldiers ordering them to keep moving, a grim column of ethnic Albanians was marched to Pristina's railway station yesterday and loaded on trains bound for the Macedonian border.

After clearing out much of the ethnic Albanian majority from vast swaths of Kosovo's countryside, it appears that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is setting his sights on the province's capital.

At least 7,000 men, women and children, most with no baggage or possessions, streamed silently through the capital's center late yesterday afternoon to the train station.

"Police came to my house and said, `Go! Go now! Go to Albania,' " a frightened man with a wife and two children said in halting English.

A middle-age man on crutches hobbled beside a woman carrying a baby swaddled in a dirty blanket. Farther along the frightened mass of people, a mother pushed a child in a stroller. Elderly refugees leaned on one another to keep from falling amid the crush of people.

A child's cries broke the silence, but the others walked with no more than a few whispered words, their eyes locked straight ahead. Several held hands, perhaps steeling themselves against shouts of abuse from a Serbian civilian in T-shirt and jeans who carried an AK-47 assault rifle.

As the sun set behind dark clouds, soldiers were yelling at the refugees to keep moving to the train station, where no independent witnesses were allowed to see what happened.

Local government officials could not be reached for comment last night, but Pristina's semiofficial Serbian media center claimed that the ethnic Albanians had chosen to suddenly leave their country, most without luggage.

"They asked for protection and the police gave them protection," said Radovan Urosevic, who runs the media center. "Some madman might come and shoot them."

Urosevic said the refugees were being taken south to the Macedonian border.

Serbian police and paramilitary groups have driven a half-million more refugees from their homes across Kosovo, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Before the forced march yesterday, Serbian police and soldiers moved slowly through Pristina's ethnic Albanian neighborhoods, shooting short bursts from their Kalashnikovs and terrorizing people hiding in their homes.

Amid an increasing NATO bombing campaign, Serbs and ethnic Turks also have been leaving the capital in large numbers in recent days. As NATO's air war grows more fierce, Kosovo's capital is being abandoned to the gunmen, the looters and the weakest who have no way out.

At least one prominent Kosovar Albanian, human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi, and his two sons are known to have been taken away by Serbian police and executed.

NATO said five more ethnic Albanian leaders and intellectuals have been murdered in Pristina in recent days, but U.S. and Kosovar Albanian sources in Brussels said there are indications that two of them, Rambouillet peace negotiator Fehmi Agani and Baton Haxhiu, the Koha Ditore newspaper editor in chief who voiced the aspirations of his people, are alive.

Serbian authorities insist that pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, whom Kosovar Albanians elected their president in an unofficial ballot, is alive in his Pristina home under police protection.

On the northern edge of Pristina, a cloud of thick gray smoke poured from several houses in the Dragoban district, from which Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas were sniping at pedestrians in the city center, local Serbs say.

Serbian police continue to report heavy clashes with rebel KLA fighters.

In one battle, KLA guerrillas attacked police Tuesday and early yesterday near Malisevo, one of the main battlegrounds in the rebels' war for independence, which began just over a year ago.

Police also reported an intense battle with KLA guerrillas who fired mortar shells, anti-tank weapons and assault rifles at Yugoslav border guards yesterday.

The KLA guerrillas had crossed from Albania and were trying to fight their way back into Kosovo but were beaten back, Serbian authorities said.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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