On the brink: All eyes are fixed on Kosovo

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TENSIONS ROSE in Kosovo yesterday as the two million people of the disputed Serbian province awaited the result -ultimately postponed - of last-ditch peace talks in France. Scattered fighting broke out between guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbian forces, who were also involved in several confrontations with international peace monitors.

Hundreds of ethnic Albanians fled the village of Studencane in south- western Kosovo after it came under sustained Serbian artillery fire. Groups of KLA guerrillas took cover as Serbian army and special police units pummelled the village with heavy mortar rounds and machine guns. Two Serb brothers were found dead nearby, apparently kidnapped and murdered by ethnic Albanians, and the Serbian Media Centre said police had also came under fire in the area.

Near Podujevo, north of the capital, Pristina, renewed firing broke out. Serbian and KLA forces are within a few dozen yards of each other in places, and the area has seen the most persistent violations of the ceasefire which was supposed to have come into force in October.

"Albanian terrorist gangs continue with attacks on innocent people... and legal bodies of law and security," the Serbian information ministry said yesterday. "[The] international community is turning [a] blind eye at obvious terrorist attacks."

Diplomats, aid workers and their families were leaving both Kosovo and the Serbian capital, Belgrade, yesterday as possible Nato air strikes drew closer. A contingent of about 75 Americans arrived in Budapest in 20 jeeps and cars packed full of luggage after the seven-hour drive from Belgrade. "This is a precautionary move... Of course the fear was that there would be reprisals if we remained in the country and there were air strikes," said Douglas Davidson of the US embassy in Belgrade.

Most people leaving Kosovo itself have headed for the Macedonian frontier, about an hour's drive south of Pristina. Foreigners were joined by some Kosovar Albanians, while others fled Pristina for the countryside, fearing air attacks or Serbian reprisals if they remained in the capital. Dozens of ethnic Albanian students were crowding aboard buses heading out of Pristina. "The possibility of a Nato attack is real," said one, Ymet Veliu. "I'm worried what is going to happen after that, especially because of the threat from the Serbs to retaliate against us for Nato attacks."

"We are afraid the Serbs will make a massacre of civilians," said one KLA commander near Podujevo. "We are ready."

International observers reported heightened Serbian military movements, including convoys of troops, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, although some said they appeared to be "symbolic rather than tactical". But the American Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission saw the moves as potentially significant, reporting "unusually heavy concentrations of [Yugoslav army] armour and heavy artillery deployed in that sector of Serbia just north of Kosovo". The forces "seem to be poised along a road leading directly to Podujevo".

In Pristina, police stopped vehicles and checked papers in the centre of the city for the first time in months. They also set up new checkpoints on highways leading into the province.

Kosovo's Serbs, only a tenth of the population, were also frightened that Nato air strikes might encourage the KLA. Unarmed monitors of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) withdrew from the village of Leposavic, in western Kosovo, after residents hurled stones and firecrackers at them.

In Prizren, government forces held their own evacuation exercise late on Friday, taking control of roads around the town. OSCE monitors were blocked at gunpoint. In another incident, police stopped two monitors, demanding to see their maps. After a tense half-hour stand-off, they were released. OSCE believe police may have suspected them of marking targets for Nato.

Speakers at a Serbian Radical Party rally accused the US of using Rambouillet to extend its control. "Their only goal is to have Nato troops stationed in Kosovo," said one. Americans were "Nazis" and their actions were "much worse than what Hitler did" - a common theme among Serbs, who point out they fought on the Allied side in the Second World War, while 2,000 Albanians joined a specially formed SS division.