Numbed by fatigue and fear, the refugees flee Serb death squads

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HUNDREDS OF thousands of Kosovars were seeking sanctuary in the high valleys of Albania last night, saying the Serbs were killing everyone who refused to leave their home.

In what aid agencies describe as the biggest forced movement of peoples in Europe since the Second World War, the refugees brought reports of massacres and ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen since the Serbs swept through Bosnia in 1992.

Serbian death squads were reported to be systematically exterminating the whole of the province's intelligentsia, including members of the Kosovo delegation to the recentpeace talks in Rambouillet. Fehmi Agani, number two in the delegation, was executed by the police in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, along with his family on Sunday night, according to Nato and local sources. Manywriters, journalists and local politicians were thought to have been executed too.

Nato insisted air strikes were working and warplanes yesterday took off from bases in Italy and Britain for a sixth night of strikes on military targets in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. The Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, is making his way to Belgrade today for talks with President Slobodan Milosevic.

At the border crossing in Morini refugees flooded into Albania on tractors, in old cars and on foot, carrying babies and dragging children. The children were dry-eyed, numbed by fatigue and fear. It was the adults who wept openly.

"At 5am they entered the village without warning," said Hajrula Kabashi, holding the hand of his daughter, Drenusha. "People were sleeping but soon started running. Some didn't have time even to take their children."

The people of the border village of Trnje said they had lost 37 of their number when they fled Serbs firing machine-guns. "We split into two groups to escape from them," said Mr Kabashi, a geography teacher at the village school. "They started shooting at the group heading for [the village of Mamusa]. They killed about 37 people, including two of my fellow teachers and three of my pupils."

Further along the road, we met Jeton Vranorski, an English teacher from the same school. "We walked all through the night - they just wanted to push us out," Mr Vranorski said.

An old man lit a small fire, warming his stockinged feet. Beside him women lay asleep on the ground, wrapped in blankets. All along the road, families sat on the grass, waiting for transport to the Albanian town of Kukes.

The refugees say the Serbs are systematically wiping out the Albanians of Kosovo using the terrifying methods honed in Bosnia, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims were efficiently terrorised and ejected from their homes or killed.

The Yugoslav authorities are dismissing the refugees' stories as fabrication, as they did in the past in Bosnia. But there is a consistency to the tales.

The exodus from Kosovo gathered pace before dawn on Sunday and continued yesterday. By 8am, 60,000 people had crossed the border at Morini. In the distance we could see the Serb soldiers, strolling across a field, guarded by armoured vehicles.

Columns of smoke rose in the distance, signs of the orgy of destruction in Kosovo. Near the border post burned another small fire. It contained documents stolen from the refugees, identity cards and car papers. The refugees were even forced to remove their car number-plates.

The Serbian ethnic cleansing operation has now moved from the gutted border villages to the cities of Djakovica, Prizren and Pec.

Refugees from Pec said that Serb soldiers, accompanied by police and armed Serb civilians, drove into the town at about 10am on Sunday. "By noon we were on trucks," said Valdet Shoshi. "The whole town is clean now. They came into town, broke into apartments and took everything they could," he continued. "They were shooting inside, spraying the walls with bullets."

Serbs looted local businesses and burnt Albanian shops and houses, said Mr Shoshi.

Many others had the same story of an organised campaign to cleanse Kosovo of Albanians. In each town and village the soldiers arrived, ordered people to leave immediately and threatened death to any resisters.

"Three old people were killed, one woman and two men, because they did not want to leave," said Florija Rexhepi, from the village of Babaj Boks. She said they fled to the hills when Nato air strikes started, "We were in the mountains for three days - they burned our houses," she said. "But we went to Djakovica to hand ourselves over to the Serbs."

Last night there were reports that the population of Pristina, a city of 300,000, will be next.

One refugee woman recalled the jeers of the Serbs. "They said to us, `Now Nato is going to help you. Go to America - Clinton will help you too. Tell them this place is Serbia'."