Kosovo dissidents reject deal

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THE KOSOVO Albanians' agreement to the Western peace plan for the province was thrown into doubt yesterday after a splinter group of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) denounced the deal.

"It is easy for them to accept a compromise and present that as their big victory, because it was not their friends who were killed and whose last message was that we should fight to the end," said a statement from the KLA zone of Podujevo.

The Podujevo region, close to the border with Serbia proper, is under the command of "Remi". Last month he told William Walker, chief of the international monitoring mission in Kosovo, that he would never disarm his forces, even though the peace deal required it.

Yugoslav troops continued their military offensive in Kosovo yesterday, concentrating on the triangle of land between Vucitrn, Srbica and Mitrovica, and forcing KLA rebels to withdraw from the area. After they captured the village of Vrbnica, huge plumes of smoke were visible as buildings were set ablaze. Tank shells crashed into the villages of Ljubovac, Osiljan and Galica.

The army has embarked on a drive westwards, aimed at subduing the KLA heartlands on the border with Albania. The action threatens dozens of Albanian villages in the east of Kosovo and yesterday hundreds of civilians began the trek west out to Srbica and Glogovac, where they hope to find refuge.

Their fears were heightened by reports that a column of Serbian armoured vehicles, including seven T-72 tanks, had already moved into Srbica, known in Albanian as "Skenderaj".

"We heard that a lot of forces had moved into Skenderaj," said Basri Nura, who was driving a tractor pulling a trailer in which his mother and three sisters huddled under an old, grey blanket.

Several more tractors moved along the muddy road, past groups of people walking out. Elheme Bardiqi and two friends were moving their 15 children to a safer village, the children bundled up against the biting wind in brightly coloured jackets, hats and gumboots.

Mrs Bardiqi said: "We wanted to escape with the children because they were frightened - they were crying when they heard the shelling."

The rebel fighters fear that the civilians fleeing their villages may end up trapped if the Yugoslav tanks in Srbica join the pincer movement.

"We are trying to let the civilians know it [Srbica] is not a good situation [for them]," said one fighter. "But we have to fight somewhere."