Kosovar villagers flee Yugoslav military

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YUGOSLAV SOLDIERS and police appear to be clearing villages in Kosovo along the border with Macedonia of their Albanian inhabitants.

About 5,000 villagers, fearing military attack, have fled their homes in the past few days, seeking refuge across the border with friends and neighbours. Many, however, are camping outdoors within the borders of Kosovo. In one gully, women and children waited as their men cut down branches for temporary shelters.

The group of 300 had come from the village of Gajre, close to the main road leading south from the province's capital, Pristina, to Macedonia. They were preparing to spend a second night in the snow. Back in the village, rebel fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) patrolled the streets, but few civilians remain. Ismet Calaku, who returned yesterday to find the body of his brother - presumably shot dead by Yugoslav forces attacking the village - said: "Where can we go? Do you think we are safe anywhere?"

Further north, near the village of Velika Hoca, international mediators succeeded in preventing a feared attack by the Serb security forces, after the murder of a Serb civilian. KLA members yesterday handed over the body of the Serb, who was taken hostage last week. They released his companion, who had been badly beaten.

The exchange was negotiated by verifiers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Both Serbs were from Velika Hoca, a Serb enclave on a hill held by the KLA. The two were kidnapped after the seizure last week of three Albanians, two of whom were found dead yesterday.

t The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who begins a three-day visit to Russia today, will attempt to persuade Moscow to contribute troops to Kosovo - something seen as a crucial ingredient in securing acceptance by the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, of a foreign peace-keeping force. But Mr Cook will have to overcome Russian hostility to the overall Nato command of the force demanded by alliance members, led by the US.