Bloodshed stains Kosovo talks

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The Independent Online
THE SMOULDERING ruins of the village of Svrhe marked what was supposed to be Kosovo's last weekend of war, as Serbs and Kosovo Albanians flew to Paris for talks that will either end the fighting or mark a new and deadly phase in its acceleration.

But as officials in Belgrade released a thousand white doves as "a symbol of peace", Serbian tanks were ploughing through Svrhe. As they shelled the old stone houses, forcing the inhabitants to run screaming and crying for the hills, it was hard to imagine diplomats at far-off Rambouillet ending the cycle of bloodshed. "Children were crying, women were weeping and we were running, falling over, and you couldn't hear anything but the constant shooting and shelling," said Ajet Gashi, who returned with me to Svrhe to check on the damage. We found the houses smoking, flames licking the walls where the roofs had started to collapse. "They launched a surprise attack, which started at 6 o'clock in the morning," an Albanian fighter said. "We were outnumbered."

In the woods a few miles away, Maliq Dobruna waited beside his tractor, the trailer filled to bursting with his wife, eight children and other relatives.

Farther north, smoke billowed above the villages of Mijalic and Drvar. Zymer Zeneli showed us his home, where the Serbs had hurled around bedding, papers, clothing and food, thrown an armchair down a well, and ripped up passports. The family snapshots lay scattered and shredded in the garden. "We worked so hard for this and now it's all destroyed," he said. But the Zenelis escaped. In towns and cities across Kosovo, hospitals were struggling with the tide of dead and wounded from a series of weekend bombings.

The death toll from the blasts rose to seven dead and 58 wounded as doctors struggled to cope with the number of people needing surgery. The explosions bore a sinister resemblance to the market-place blasts that killed dozens and maimed many more in Sarajevo in the 1992-95 war between Bosnia's Serbs and Muslims.

In the northern town of Mitrovica, where four were killed in an explosion in a vegetable market on Saturday, Arsim Suleijmani said: "We saw terrible things: legs, hands, limbs, lots of blood."

Behind the stall where he was selling apples, onions and potatoes when the blast occurred, a trader lifted two wooden boxes to show the mangled remains of a hand and some fingers.

As the delegations reached France it seemed only a miracle could save Kosovo from more disasters. While the Albanians indicated they would sign a US-drafted peace agreement as soon as today, the Yugoslav delegation was under strict orders from President Slobodan Milosevic not even to discuss the proposed deployment of Nato troops - the key component of the proposed deal. The plan would provide Kosovo, where the population is 90 per cent Albanian, with autonomy, backed by a deployment of 28,000 Nato troops.

In London, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, reiterated that Nato remained poised to strike if an agreement is not reached, and warned Mr Milosevic that his government "may have to take the consequences" if it rejected a deal. The feebly worded threat seemed only to underline the disarray in the ranks of the big powers over what to do next if, as seems almost certain, no agreement follows from Rambouillet. In Svrhe, the villagers said they hoped the latest bloodshed would concentrate people's minds in France. "We are really hoping for something good in Paris," said Mr Gashi as the burning roof of his home finally fell in with a great crash.

In the distance the rebel fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army could be heard chanting a song that testified to a willingness to fight on: "We can't stand slavery; we're going to win; we will liberate this land."

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