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Outnumbered in the Serbian capital

Ethnic Albanians bunkered in Belgrade worry they will be next victims

The police come late at night looking for him. His friends have been beaten. He has no idea where his family is.

Such is the life of Rexhep, an ethnic Albanian trapped in the Serbian capital. "I feel like a Jew in World War II," he says, speaking in a quivering voice and asking that his real name not be used.

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An estimated 6,500 ethnic Albanians live in Belgrade, and, they say, life has never been harder. Even though they are far from the front line - Kosovo - they spend the nights in fear, wondering when they will get the dreaded knock on the door. If they're men of fighting age, they, like other Yugoslav men, are not allowed to leave the country.

They think they'll be the next victims of "ethnic cleansing."

"Everyone is scared," says Rexhep, who is a respected professional here but cannot do his job anymore. "We don't know what to do. If it gets any worse, our lives will be in danger."

According to Rexhep, some ethnic Albanians in Belgrade have already been beaten - by their neighbors. Others have been asked to leave their flats. Businesses have been vandalized.

"I heard of two destroyed [ethnic Albanian-owned] shops," says Natasa Kantic, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "And I spoke with one Albanian lawyer who had to change his address."

But it's difficult to know the real hardships ethnic Albanians face in Belgrade, a bastion of Serbian nationalism. Many are too afraid to speak to foreign journalists. Others are in hiding. They usually work low-paying jobs as manual laborers - the jobs Serbs don't want to do.

They are Muslims; the Serbs are Orthodox Christians.

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"A hundred years ago, we lived here better than other Muslims in Europe," says Hamdija Jusufspahic, the head of the last remaining mosque in Belgrade. "When the country split, everything became bad."

Mr. Jusufspahic is "loyal," meaning he supports the Serbian regime. He blames today's problems on NATO airstrikes.

Yugoslav officials also blame the plight of ethnic Albanians here on NATO bombing. They say those who are not "terrorists" will be protected.

Nevertheless, someone threw a hand grenade in the courtyard of Jusufspahic's 16th-century mosque, where local Albanians worship, early this week. The walls are pocked from shrapnel, the windows shattered.

"There is no reason for this," he says. "It's the seventh time it's happened since 1991."

In the Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim region in southwest Serbia, residents are also under pressure to leave their homes, according to Rasim Ljajic, a political leader there.

Before Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, there were an estimated 60,000 ethnic Albanians in Belgrade. That changed, however, when Slobodan Milosevic rose to power on a nationalist platform.

By 1991, there were fewer than 10,000 in the capital, according to official census data. While many ethnic Albanian students used to come here to study at the university - as Rexhep did in 1972 - there have been hardly any new students since 1990.

Over the years, most ethnic Albanians moved south to Kosovo, which was autonomous until 1989. And those who didn't move have family there. Like Rexhep.

"I haven't heard from my family in two days," he says. "Maybe I'll go there and try to find them."

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