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The Serb 'Cleansing' in Kosovo

As NATO warns Serbs, ethnic Albanians flee, and guerrillas call for more 'freedom fighters.'

The Serb forces have come and gone in this tiny farming village in western Kosovo.

They came to the mosque, where the top of the minaret has been blasted away by artillery fire. They came to the home of Rame Krasniqi, who walks through the charred rubble where his brother was killed. They came to the house of Leonara Krasniqi, who stands trembling with her grandmother in the hot sun.

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"The Serbs are trying to kill us," says Ms. Krasniqi. "They came by night with bombs. They killed my uncle, but we escaped to the forest. This is our first day back. We don't have food.... We have nothing."

In a 10-hour trip beginning in the city of Pec and ending just one mile from the besieged city of Decani, reporters witnessed the trail of fear and bullet shells left by Serbian police and military forces.

Western diplomats say the campaign is part of a Serbian effort to clear the area of independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, who are a 90 percent majority in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Some have called it the same kind of "ethnic cleansing" that ravaged Bosnia.

Talks between ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have begun, but are stalled - Mr. Rugova's team canceled a Friday meeting in protest of the Serb offensive - and a solution to the crisis seems far away.

There is sentiment among some diplomats here that NATO should send troops into the region. Some observers say that may actually have the effect of giving Mr. Milosevic an alibi for loosening his grip on the region. State-controlled media, they say, can spin the story - and blame the West.

Yesterday, Wolfgang Ischinger, the German Foreign Ministry's political director, spoke in Belgrade before going home to brief his government.

"The developments in the past week have largely changed the situation, and the only way now is for Belgrade to understand that it should speedily return to the negotiating table, and I hope that it is not too late for that," he said. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook issued a similar statement yesterday in London.

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The fighting has been under way for two weeks. There are 52 confirmed deaths, but the final count will probably be much higher, ethnic Albanian sources say. About 12,000 refugees have fled to Albania.

Another 20,000 escaped through the fields in the opposite direction, dodging sniper fire until they reached Pec, says Tahir Demaj, an ethnic Albanian political leader. In some cases the refugees have been escorted by the secessionist guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Some have tried to reach Italy by boat, Albanian newspapers said yesterday. Italian and Albanian police had reportedly intercepted five boats bound for Italy off the Albanian coast.

More than 200 people are thought to be trapped in the center of Decani and another 200 are missing in the surrounding area.

Close to 300 ethnic Albanians and scores of Serbian police have been killed since the crisis began in late February.

Addressing a London conference on the European Union, Britain's foreign minister said Britain was urgently discussing with its military and political allies how to deal with the conflict.

"President Milosevic over the past week has crossed the threshold," said Mr. Cook. "The use of tanks, of artillery, of the might of the military army against civilian centers of population is wholly unacceptable within the modern Europe."

He said the EU could not tolerate a confrontation that was so explicitly ethnic in its motivation and in its objectives.

In Kosovo, a call to arms

Most of the people remaining in the most embattled region of Kosovo are KLA guerrillas. They control the maze-like dirt roads that link the villages, and they range from armed teenagers to professional-looking soldiers. They can be seen almost everywhere in western Kosovo. And they are becoming increasingly bold.

Yesterday, they urged all able-bodied men in Kosovo to join the cause. "The KLA calls on all men from 18 to 55 years to join in the struggle for the liberation of the country," said a statement published in the Albanian-language Koha Ditore newspaper in Pristina.

KLA soldiers patrol the train station in Dobra Voda, along the main route between Pec and the provincial capital of Pristina.

As a train of ethnic Albanians passed the station, exuberant passengers crowded around the windows and waved to the KLA fighters.

In the villages, the KLA stops passing cars every mile, and drivers must raise a clenched fist outside their window to signal that they are not Serbs.

The Serbs justify their attacks as necessary to stop the KLA, which they call a terrorist organization. But to ethnic Albanians, the KLA is a natural response to a decade of authoritarian rule in Kosovo that began when Milosevic rose to power and stripped the region of its autonomy in 1989.

"We are here to defend ourselves, that is all," says a KLA soldier named Jeton as he guards a checkpoint with an automatic pistol, hand grenades, and a hunting knife.

Press access still limited

The KLA let reporters drive as far as the village of Rznic, which was shelled Friday. But they were not allowed to go to Decani, which has also been sealed off to diplomats and humanitarian aid organizations.

In the city of Pec, which is being used as a base for the Decani operation, the streets are crowded with Serbian policemen and military personnel. Local Serbs speak of fathers and cousins who have volunteered to fight in Decani, which contains one of the Serbian Orthodox Church's most treasured monasteries.

The Serb forces are drawing from the police, military, and civilian population. There can also be seen what appear to be irregular paramilitary soldiers, who drive unregistered cars and have their faces masked or painted.

Food stocks run low

With major roads to Pec cut off by either the Serbs or the KLA, Pec has been under a loose blockade for nearly a month. Cooking oil, sugar, and flour have become scarce. "If this continues," says Victor Gashi, who runs the Mother Teresa center, a distributor of humanitarian relief, "I'm afraid people will start fighting for the remaining food."

Musa Berisha, a human rights worker from Decani who has been sending reports out of the region by satellite phone, was sitting on a mattress in the shade of a chestnut tree, surrounded by papers listing the names of the dead and missing.

He says he saw planes drop bombs on Decani and the nearby village of Prilep, which was attacked Friday.

"The truth is too bitter to tell," he says. "This is what Serbia wanted. This is ethnic cleansing of the 60,000 inhabitants of Decani."

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