Fleeing villagers tell of Serb slaughter

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The Independent Online
THEY appeared on the crest of the hill above Nikosnica, huddled together in their torn, ragged clothes, faces creased up with anxiety and blinking nervously in the sharp midday sun.

There were about 30, a few women, lots of children, but not a single man - crammed into a trailer-tractor that bumped and weaved its way along the rutted farm tracks out of Prekaz, one of the Albanian villages that has been under attack from Serbian forces for the past three days. "We hid in the basement of a house in the Jashari compound for two days and two nights while the police bombed the buildings around us," said an unemployed teacher who did not give her name.

"There are women and children who were burnt alive in those houses. Then the police moved in and began shooting everything they could see. They even shot the cows. They shot every man over the age of 15 that they could find."

The Jashari family were known as a militant rural clan, opposed to the police state the Serbs have built up in this Albanian-dominated province. Now they appear to all intents and purposes to have been liquidated.

The Serb authorities boasted at the weekend that they had killed Adem Jashari, whom they described as a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the organisation that has claimed responsibility for the murders of several dozen Serb policemen and Albanian informers over the past year.

According to the Albanians, Adem was still alive. But 20 members of his family - his father, brothers, nephews and a few of the women - have been reported killed. It seems the Jashari menfolk put up a fight, but according to the village teacher and other refugees from Prekaz, much of the rest of the village came under unprovoked attack. From the confused descriptions by witnesses, it seems the police used armoured personnel carriers and mortars to blast their way into the village.

"There must be 10 or 15 houses burnt to the ground. The dead and wounded are lying in the street, unable to get help," the teacher said. "We thought if we stayed put the fighting would stop. But when the big explosions began again this morning, we tried to leave. My husband ran into the woods because he knew he would be slaughtered if he showed his face. We walked out of the village trembling with fear. The police let us through, but as soon as we had left they began firing their guns towards us."

Other refugees have described how the Serbian police, many of them in masks, were combing the woods to hunt down the villagers who were still alive.They said one member of the Jashari family, Bashkim, had hidden overnight in a freezing river to escape detection. It was not clear if he was still alive.

Over the weekend, coachloads of police reinforcements were seen heading into Kosovo and along the road linking Pristina, the capital, with Mitrovica, just north of the combat zone, where many of the refugees have fled.

Around Prekaz, the security forces established a ring of jeeps and armoured vehicles on the hilltops to prevent anyone, including the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations, from getting in. From the hill above Nikosnica, it was possible to see the rooftops of Prekaz. Plumes of black smoke billowed over the crest of the hill.

It is hard to predict how long this onslaught will go on for. The Serbs told Western diplomats visiting Pristina on Friday that "anti-terrorist operation" would wind down over the weekend.

Instead, the attacks intensified as soon as the ambassadors left for Belgrade. Police sources predicted the conflict continuing for a week, or until 22 March, when the Albanians had planned to hold unofficial elections independent of the Serbs.

The police strategy that is emerging is a dragnet throughout the rural Drenica region west of Pristina. Prekaz, on the outer edge of Drenica, appears nearly dealt with. Fighting in Laushe, a few miles down the road to the south-west, is still reported to be intense. Over the weekend, police were moving in on Srbica, further still to the west.

The only way to visit Drenica is along dirt tracks far from the main roads. The region is full of destroyed houses and walls bearing the marks of bullet holes and artillery shells. Most date back to the 1980s, or even further - a reminder that Drenica has for decades been a hotbed of tension between Albanians and the Serbs.

If it is true, as the Serbs claim, that the Albanians are organising an armed revolt in Drenica, it was hard to find evidence of any military response to the onslaught on the villages. We were met by two young Albanian men in a blue Opel Ascona with radio equipment above the dashboard. We were told they were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. If they were armed, they did not show their weapons or give any indication they were part of a militia.

Their main concern appeared to be to find a breach in the ring of police around Prekaz so the dead and wounded could be evacuated. Given that the Serbs have APCs and tanks waiting in barracks in Pristina, the KLA hardware does not inspire fear so much as pity.

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