Five villages ablaze in new shelling

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SERB SECURITY forces poured rocket and mortar fire on to suspected rebel positions in northern Kosovo yesterday, as the two sides sat down to peace talks in Paris.

Smoke rose from burning houses in at least five villages in the eastern foothills of Cicavica mountain, west of the main road between Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and the town of Mitrovica. Exhausted rebels gathered in the village of Ljubovac to rest and re-group as the fire boomed around them.

The crash of incoming shells rang out, and puffs of black smoke marked the impacts - mercifully short of the village, at least until late afternoon, when one house was hit and began to burn, sending a column of thick smoke wafting above the ridge line.

Most civilians have already left the area, since the Yugoslav army and police forces began pushing west at the weekend, assaulting the rebel- held village of Osljan. A few stalwarts remained to protect their houses and livestock - or because they had no choice.

Ibrahim Zymeri was sheltering in the garage below his house in Dubovac, near Osljan, where one shell had landed harmlessly in a straw-pile. "We escaped every other time when there was shelling, but today it was so sudden that we stayed - it is too dangerous to leave," Mr Zymeri said, as artillery rumbled in the distance.

"We still have a unit in Osljan, doing shifts," said Enver, the local KLA brigade commander, who was nursing a bandaged left hand - a shrapnel wound. "They tried to attack this way, but they took a lot of victims on their side."

However, the KLA has also suffered losses, including Bislime. As the sun set, the local hoxha said a few short prayers over the body of Bislime and his closest friends set the coffin to rest in the thick, cloying earth of Drenica, the KLA stronghold that could be threatened if the Yugoslav army succeeds in pushing the KLA off the Cicavica mountains.

"I hope this is going to be the last dead soldier," said Gani, a military policeman standing by the freshly-dug grave. "All the fighters are our friends, even if we don't know them," he said.

But Ramadan, another soldier, was sceptical. "How can he be the last one buried when they are shelling over there?"

The death toll from a weekend of some of the worst violence in the year-long conflict has risen to at least 22, including eight people killed in bomb blasts and four ethnic Albanian woodcutters shot dead near Suva Reka on Sunday.

An official with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors said they were encountering increased hostility from both sides. "Last week somebody fired on one of our cars. The bullets came from Yugoslav army positions." the official said.

"Yesterday the KLA checked the documents of one of our teams to see if there were any Russians among them. They said they don't like Russians."