Children `die in woods' as Serbs attack

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YUGOSLAV SECURITY forces attacked rebel positions across Kosovo with mortars, tanks and heavy machine-gun fire yesterday as part of an operation to remove the bodies of more than 40 ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbian police on Friday.

The action, condemned by the international community, took place as the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that the fighting had already forced hundreds to flee and that children were already freezing to death in the open.

"There are hundreds of people who have spent the past three nights in the woods in freezing weather. Most of them are women and children," Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva. "My staff are trying to help them, but the only way to do this is for the two sides to stop fighting and allow these people to seek shelter."

Ms Ogata, who said there were reports children were dying in the freezing conditions, warned of "dramatic consequences" for both Serbian and Albanian civilians in Kosovo.

"Now we are again seeing people in their hundreds encamped in the woods. A new upsurge of violence will undermine what we have accomplished to date," she said.

Yesterday's military operation around the village of Racak was carried out in the face of pleas from the international monitors in Kosovo for restraint. It also came as Yugoslav border guards turned back the chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal, Louise Arbour, as she attempted to enter the country to investigate the Racak massacre.

President Milosevic's refusal to admit the chief prosecutor is a clear violation of the peace deal brokered by the US in October, and a provocative snub to the international community. The Yugoslavs began their operation to remove the bodies by pouring anti-aircraft canon fire into the hills around Racak. Heavily armed special police troops, backed by Yugoslav army tanks, then moved forward in a sweep which, international monitors said, extended to several other villages.

The monitors said it appeared to be an attempt to push back fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army still in the surrounding hills - a show of force in defiance of a demand from the Operation for Security and Co- operation in Europe mission in Kosovo for just unarmed forensic experts to enter the village.

Racak was deserted, the only sound on the empty main streets was the intermittent crump of heavy weapons fire. Inside the mosque, lay the 40 or more bodies of the ethnic Albanian villagers massacred by the security forces - their relatives too scared to retrieve them for burial.

A few hours later, the security forces made their move, sealing off the village and removing the bodies in a police truck. As the police left in an armoured column, sustained and intense automatic fire erupted all around. The Serbian investigative judge supervising the operation was left with a bullet hole in the back of her vehicle which she attributed to the KLA.

The bodies are now in the regional capital, Pristina, and will be examined by a Serbian forensic team.

Their removal will cause further anger in an ethnic Albanian community already outraged by the worst single act of violence since the conflict in Kosovo flared almost a year ago.

The UNHCR said staff had tried to deliver aid to Racak, but its workers were stopped by Serbian security forces from entering the village and left their supplies of food and blankets at the nearby town of Stimlje. Field workers in the Stimlje area met a group of displaced people yesterday who told them two babies had died in the woods overnight, the agency said.

Yugoslav security forces took up positions around the village on Sunday and began firing towards it and surrounding hills, where the Albanian rebels had been persuaded to pull back by international monitors.

"They said they had `created the preconditions to allow their executive organ' meaning their own investigating team, to go into the village and conduct the investigation," said Sandy Blyth, spokesman for the international monitors in Kosovo.

The firing had started after the deputy head of the international monitoring mission failed to persuade the Yugoslav investigating judge not to try to take a police escort into the village to try to avoid a clash with the rebels.

The bodies are the main evidence of what Western leaders say was an atrocity carried out by Serb police on Friday. Most were shot at close range in the head and stomach. Belgrade says the massacre was an elaborate hoax designed to try to provoke NATO intervention against Yugoslavia.