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As Serbs Make Steady Gains, World Debates Kosovo Tack

Russia again urged talks yesterday. But US weighs unilateral NATO attack on Serbs.

The houses are rubble, the survivors are afraid to open their doors, and gunshots echo in the distance.

The Serbian forces mill around confidently while truckloads of heavily armed soldiers roll up into the hills.

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Reporters on Saturday were for the first time given complete access to the western city of Decani, the site of the worst shelling in Kosovo, which sent almost all of the city's ethnic Albanians fleeing.

Serbian officials say their attack earlier this month targeted members of the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army, but seems clear that shells were launched at civilian quarters.

The decision by Serbian authorities to open Decani to the press and humanitarian aid workers appears to be an attempt by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to pacify the international community, which is threatening to intervene with NATO forces.

But according to a Western diplomat in the region, it's a small concession by Mr. Milosevic, who has refused greater demands to remove his special forces from Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

Close to 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have been killed since Feb. 28, and shelling by Serb forces has displaced more than 50,000 people. Fighting between the Serbs and the KLA continued Sunday on the two main roads through the region.

About 200 ethnic Albanians are believed to still be in Decani, possibly against their will, Albanian and diplomatic sources say.

Yet the international community is unsure how to act, with deadlock over Kosovo splitting the countries of the six-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, particularly Russia and the US.

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Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, has tiptoed around Kosovo, insisting that all diplomatic options have not been exhausted. The US and other Western powers are leaning toward fast NATO action - with or without United Nations approval - which they say is necessary to prevent a wider Balkans war.

On Friday a senior Russian defense official, Leonid Ivashov, warned that NATO intervention in Kosovo without UN approval could result in a new cold war. US State Department spokesman James Rubin denied the split was so severe.

On Monday, Russian envoy Nikolai Afanasievski urged a resumption of talks on Kosovo after meeting with both Serbian and ethnic Albanian representatives.

But for those who have fled Decani, and for the few who remain, even NATO intervention would be too little, too late.

WELL over half of the houses are damaged beyond repair. Almost all of the stores have been looted. The only signs of life in some parts of the city, which used to have a population of about 20,000, are stray dogs that sniff through the debris.

"The fact is there are very few Albanians left in the city," says Janjic Sava, an elder Serbian Orthodox monk at the nearby Visoki Decani monastery.

"I try to believe that ethnic cleansing was not the intention ... but you never know," he says.

In one of the few apartment buildings still intact in Decani, an ethnic Albanian woman named Sharife lives with her husband. Her son and grandchildren have fled to Pec, but she stays behind because "this is all I have."

She says she does not know what happened during the shelling because she did not open the door or windows for two weeks.

Her house, just across the street from a police base, is well kept, but she says her food supplies are running low and her husband needs medical attention. In one room are stacks of suitcases that she guards for a departed neighbor.

"Just help us," she says. "We are dying."

In an adjacent building, ethnic Albanians have written "family" on their doors in the Serbian language, apparently to deter Serbian police from entering. Nevertheless, doors were smashed and almost everyone has left.

Pero Bracanovic, a Serb, lives alone on the ground floor. He says that, despite the charged ethnic hatred in Kosovo, he has been trying to help his ethnic Albanian neighbors by buying them food.

He hesitantly admits that the Serbs used too much force in Decani and that some ethnic Albanians "were forced to leave."

In front of a house in the same part of the city, an elderly ethnic Albanian man ushers journalists behind a steel garage door, to keep them out of view of the police. He speaks in hushed tones as he explains his shaky condition. "I buried my brother 10 days ago," he says.

He says the police put 38 people - Albanian and Gypsy - in his house, but the authorities recently "told them they could go." To where, he doesn't know.

When asked if the 38 people had been put there against their will as prisoners, he says, "Don't ask questions like that, you will put me in danger."

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