Kosovo crisis: Kosovo villagers plead for Nato bombs

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THE ALBANIAN woman had been doing her laundry in the courtyard yesterday when a machine gun bullet thudded into the tree above her head. Her neighbours in the Kosovo village of Dragobil pointed to damaged houses, saying that the police had fired nine mortar rounds that morning.

"Everyone has run away because the shooting has started here again," said one of the men, explaining that most of the women and children from the village were walking to safety in the hills. "The police are attacking civilians to keep us from our homes."

The villagers claimed more Serbian special police units had been deployed in the area, despite demands from the UN Security Council and Nato for a withdrawal of such forces.

That was denied by a Serbian officer in the nearby town of Malisevo, a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) stronghold before the Serbs' summer offensive. "Everything is normal," he said. Among the devastated houses, there were fortified positions, several armoured vehicles and dozens of heavily armed police. The officer said they were getting ready to withdraw.

A mile away in Dragobil, the villagers insisted no fighters of the KLA were there. But further down the road, there were several KLA soldiers, some with rocket-propelled grenades, others with Kalashnikovs. They confirmed they were still engaging the Serb forces. They were fighters who had been in the nearby town of Malisevo. They had withdrawn with their weapons intact. Their uniforms were smart and their morale was high.

One of their officers was Commander Celiko, a nom de guerre meaning "steel". He had come from Switzerland as a volunteer earlier this year and was not about to give up.

"We will keep fighting until only our flag flies over this country," he said. "We are still very strong, although there is a humanitarian crisis. Serbia is making war on the civilian population not the KLA."

Still faced with an active insurgency, diplomats say the Yugoslav leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, is worried that any territory surrendered under the threat of air strikes will be occupied by the KLA.

In the hills, Albanian refugees were huddled together under plastic sheets donated by aid agencies. One man said he had been there for three months with his five children and extended family of 18. He would not go back to his home, which was in Malisevo, until the Serbian police had left the town. "We have great hopes and expectations that Nato will attack, because we are in danger here," he said.