50,000 flee as Serbs bombard Kosovo

Click to follow
SOME 50,000 refugees have fled from their homes in Kosovo after the massive Serbian offensive against ethnic Albanian forces which has left at least 40 dead in the province and reduced villages to rubble.

Last night, spokesmen for the rebels likened the devastation wrought by the security forces of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, to that at Vukovar, the Croatian town razed by Serbian and Yugoslav army forces in 1991, and which holds the largest single mass civilian grave in post-war Europe. Paskal Milo, the Albanian Foreign Minister, spoke of a "genocide" against the local population, and warned of "scenes more painful than Bosnia."

The Serbian crackdown, the most extensive since the one of early spring which took up to 80 lives, was aimed at creating a no-man's land, several miles wide, just inside Kosovo's south western border, to cut off the flow of weapons into the province, and prevent insurgents from retreating to bases inside Albania.

As the five-day operation appeared to wind down last night, Serbian security officials claimed to have delivered a "heavy blow" to the guerillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the increasingly powerful military organisation leading the campaign for independence from Serbia and the former Yugoslavia.

According to an ethnic Albanian spokesman however, Decani, a town of 2,000 at the epicentre of the attack, as well as surrounding villages, had been reduced to rubble by sustained shellings from Serbian tanks, supported by armoured personnel carriers. Serb officials implicitly confirmed the devastation: "They were very well dug in, every house was practically a fortress," one said. "That accounts for the small number of casualties, but also for such a large number of destroyed houses."

In Brussels, Nato ambassadors held an emergency session to review their options. But although the alliance has already agreed a strategy of containment, including the deployment of Nato forces along the Kosovo/Albanian border and a strengthening of the US contingent in neighbouring Macedonia, it took no decision yesterday.

"We cannot proceed until we have solid, well-thought out military advice," a Nato spokesman said. This may not be forthcoming until a planned meeting of defence ministers on 11 June.

But in the House of Commons, Tony Blair spoke for the allies when he warned that further action by the Serbs would not be tolerated. "We cannot afford to have disorder spreading in that part of the world. I hope that is a sufficiently clear message to Milosevic," the Prime Minister declared, insisting there would be no repeat of the West's vacillation which allowed the war in Bosnia to drag on for three years.

Meanwhile, prospects were dim last night for the talks on new political arrangements scheduled for tomorrow going ahead between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Indeed, the episode can only undermine Ibrahim Rugova and other moderate Albanian leaders, and drive ever more of their disillusioned followers into the ranks of the KLA.

Leading article, page 20