Nine die as war looms in Kosovo

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The Independent Online
THE SERBIAN province of Kosovo faced the prospect of full-scale war last night as heavy fighting, involving artillery, grenade and mortar fire, erupted near the village of Obranca, 20 miles north of Pristina, between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serb security forces.

So fierce were the exchanges, now into their fourth consecutive day, that they could be heard in the Kosovan capital. They are the latest in a series of clashes that began when Belgrade ordered its forces to launch a fresh crackdown on Christmas Eve in retaliation for the murder of several Serbs during 11 days of sporadic fighting across the province.

Albanian spokesmen say nine people have been killed in the latest offensive. It poses the greatest threat thus far to the October ceasefire - and to the monitoring operation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), set up to make sure it held.

On Christmas Day, mediation led by the US diplomat, William Walker, who heads the OSCE contingent, briefly seemed to have stilled the combat. But yesterday's renewed flare-up only underscored how the Kosovo crisis is on the verge of slipping out of control - at the very time of year when, it was commonly said, freezing weather would restore calm at least until spring.

Instead both sides are ignoring the ceasefire in the hope of clinching a decisive advantage. Since their failed summer offensive the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have acquired new arms, including anti-tank weapons which KLA spokesmen claim knocked out seven Serb tanks and 12 armoured personnel carriers in the first day of fighting.

In retaliation Yugoslav officials announced their forces would continue operations around Obranca at least until after yesterday's planned funeral of a Serb farmer whose body was discovered on Saturday. Milovan Radojevic, one of the last remaining Serbs in the village, was shot dead at his home, according to the Serb Media Centre, in what was "another crime committed by Albanian terrorists, aimed at creating an ethnically all-Albanian Kosovo".

Unlike the previous fighting, which was blamed on the security forces of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, international officials say both sides have breached the ceasefire to the point where it is difficult for OSCE to continue its work. Both sides have gone looking for trouble and they've found it," Mr Walker was quoted as saying. If the Serbs and Albanians did not want to keep their commitments, then there was not much 2,000 unarmed monitors (of whom 600 only are deployed) could do about it.

Once again Albanian refugees are fleeing villages caught up in the fighting. This time they are doing so in sub-zero temperatures.