Death of a town, Serb-style

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THERE WASN'T a shop or a house without smashed windows. Shards of glass sprinkled the long grass and the pavements. A dog with black and white fur, shot through with bullets, lay on its back on the road, paws stretched skywards.

A few yards away a truck - burnt out, its cab door open, its paint peeled off by the heat - was down to its axles in a ditch. The Serb policemen who came running towards us out of a vandalised Coca-Cola store were not happy.

"You must turn back, you cannot drive through here," they shouted. "We tell you this for your own protection." We pondered their altruism. They had looted the shop they had just emerged from. They had depopulated - these policemen and their colleagues - the village of Comerane, though the Serbs would no doubt claim that their ethnic Albanian "terrorist" enemies had done so.

And now even the main road out of town was deserted. Curtains flapped through broken upper windows. A rifle muzzle pointed at us through a fence.

For miles we had driven the abandoned road westward towards Pec, overtaking only truckloads of blue-uniformed cops, Yugoslav military armoured vehicles and security men lounging in the high grass above the road.

Police cars zig-zagged through the convoys, blue lights flashing. Little wonder the Albanians of Comerane had fled. As usual, there was no way of knowing where they were - or how many had died.

When the police major at the next checkpoint stopped us, he turned to our female interpreter and said: "If I see you one more time here, I know what I am going to do with you."

And these, dear reader, are the words of a police officer. If these were the cops, heaven spare us the terrorists. But the gunmen of the Kosovo Liberation Army were busy further south.

Lieutenant Colonel Novica Zdravovic of the Serb security police - a far smarter figure than the thug who stopped us in Comerane - had listed the casualties to his own men a few hours earlier: 21 policemen killed since the beginning of the year, 53 wounded and four kidnapped by "Albanian terrorists". Less than a day before, 34-year-old police officer Dragan Stramenkovic had been shot dead and a colleague killed near Decani.

Nor had the Yugoslav army escaped. Five of its soldiers were wounded in a KLA ambush near Stimlje; a BBC television crew drove into the aftermath and carried two of the badly wounded soldiers - one dropping into unconsciousness on the floor of their car - from the scene. When we visited the ambush site yesterday, the roadway was still carpeted with hundreds of cartridge cases. A "perfidious" attack was how the Serb security forces described it - but Albanian sources said that four civilians had been killed over the weekend and three Albanian guerrillas were wounded in the ambush.

In the market town of Malisevo just 15 miles away, journalists arrived yesterday for what KLA officers had promised would be the movement's first press conference in "liberated Kosovo". A young man was standing on a wheelbarrow, painting out the Serbian cyrillic road signs outside a bar enthusiastically named "McDonald's Grill".

But round the corner, a black uniformed Albanian militia man holding a German sub-machine gun ushered us into a tea shop.

"We are very sorry you were invited to a press conference," he said. "There is no such press conference. Our information directorate will inform the press of the entire world in an e-mail message when you may be allowed to speak to us. I must ask you meanwhile not to report that I have said this to you." And with this extraordinary statement - we all enjoyed the bit about the e-mails - he marched out of the shop.

And he left us with one thought: if these are truly the insurgents of Kosovo, then maybe the Serbs have less to worry about than we thought.

Letters, Review, page 2