Battle rages in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
RENEWED FIGHTING in Kosovo threatened yesterday to lead the Serbian province into all-out civil war, despite frantic attempts by Western monitors to broker an end to hostilities between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and the security forces.

The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) demanded Western airstrikes against Belgrade after Yugoslav forces began an offensive on Thursday, near the northern town of Podujevo, which involved troops, artillery and around 100 tanks and armoured vehicles.

International monitors with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) blamed both sides for breaching the truce established under threat of Nato air action last October. The OSCE "verification" mission was established simply to check on whether both sides were sticking to the terms of United Nations resolutions on the pull-back of forces, but in the absence of a peace agreement, they have been drawn into a more active role - exactly the kind of "mission-creep" experienced by the UN in Bosnia.

The government of President Slobodan Milosevic insists its forces have been engaged only in a limited search operation to find suspects wanted for the killing of a Serbian police officer in Podujevo on Monday. But with columns of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing across the snow-covered hills, the province is suffering its most serious violence since October. It is also the OSCE's most serious test yet in Kosovo.

The head of the mission, Ambassador William Walker, spent much of Christmas Day shuttling between local KLA commanders and Serbian officials to try to establish a new ceasefire. He initially appeared to be making progress. Some Yugoslav armoured units withdrew from the area around Podujevo, while the KLA general staff said its soldiers would only fire if fired upon.

But yesterday there were more reports of fighting. Nato's Secretary General, Javier Solana, said the alliance was deeply concerned. "It is crucial that President Milosevic observes the constraints on military and police deployment to which he has committed himself," he said. Serbian officials had been warning Western diplomats for several weeks that continued activity by the KLA would be answered by force. Guerrilla commanders say they have been importing new and more sophisticated armaments over the past few months, especially anti-tank weapons. These were used for the first time in the battle around Podujevo, and KLA commanders claimed they destroyed seven Yugoslav army tanks and 12 armoured vehicles.

"Once we start deploying these weapons, it will be over in less than 12 months," said a source close to the KLA high command.