`Ethnic cleansing' nears completion in Prizren

Serbian military digs in, prepares to defend city against NATO invasion

War In Yugoslavia

May 03, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, Albania -- The Kosovar city of Prizren has been nearly depopulated, with Serbian military units and tanks digging in throughout the city, refugees who arrived here yesterday said.

Prizren would be a key point in a ground invasion of Kosovo; the refugees' accounts suggest that the Serbs are preparing to defend it against a NATO attack.

Military bases around the city have come under heavy aerial bombardment. Yesterday, Serbian tanks and other equipment apparently began to take up positions in abandoned houses.

Details were sketchy because most of the fleeing Kosovar Albanians said they took care to look down as they left the city so as not to appear too curious.

"In Prizren, you can see nothing else, only the military," said Ruzhdi Gashi, whose family was told to leave by military police. He said he saw many tanks moving about the city, where days ago there had been none.

Gashi said he saw the bodies of 10 men lying in a pool of water in a ditch near his home. Others reported much the same thing.

The exodus from Prizren, once a city of 120,000, began Thursday and peaked Friday when 12,021 refugees entered Albania, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 20,000 refugees from the city have come through Kukes in the past four days.

The sudden flow of refugees has put a renewed strain on the camps and relief organizations here in Kukes. Communications broke down, and some refugees were wandering up and down the dusty, cratered roads yesterday trying to find camps that would take them.

Rasim Shala pushed a rickety bicycle across the border point. He didn't know where to turn.

"I'm 80 years old," he said. "I just want to save my life."

Shala said the NATO bombardment of Prizren had grown especially intense the past few days. Children were afraid of the noise the bombs made, he said. Adults were afraid of the Serbs.

In fact, some refugees said that the only time they had been able to stop worrying during the past month was when the NATO missiles were falling, because that meant the Serbian troops would keep off the streets.

Yesterday, as in previous days, some refugees said the police ordered them to go, while others said they decided to get out before the police could get to them.

Some reported harassment along the way. Some said men in their families had been separated from them -- reportedly to work as laborers digging fortifications in the city for the Serbian military.

A large group of women was detained at the border, though what happened was unclear. Ray Wilkinson, a UNHCR spokesman, said he had heard reports that people who had moved to Prizren from villages during earlier ethnic cleansings were being let through, but that the Serbs were turning back residents of the city.

Trucks from the Italian, Dutch and Belgian armies began a regular convoy system yesterday, by which refugees will be taken to Shkoder, a half-day's drive away, then loaded onto trains for the trip to camps in central Albania. Each truck can carry about 30 people along dust-choked mountain roads.

"The main problem is getting drinkable water, and, as my backside can tell you, the condition of the roads," said Cpl. Eric Grebeude of the Belgian Second Battalion of Commandos.

There will have to be several days with no new arrivals from Kosovo before that system can begin to make a dent in the population here, as each convoy can take only a few hundred people.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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