Racak Massacre: Attack ends winter's deathly silence

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TIME IS running out ... it is the most over-used phrase in Kosovo. But after the events of the weekend it has little meaning, because time has now run out.

Time to find a political agreement that would prevent more bloodshed has run out because no one can agree and the blood is flowing again. Time before the snows melt and the offensives start has run out because unusually mild weather has cleared the ground, and last week the Serbs began clearing villages with artillery and gunfire. Time to act before the international observer mission suffers its first casualty has run out because on Friday the first monitor from Britain was shot. And now, with the appalling discovery on Saturday of the remains of 45 men, women and children from the village of Racak, 15 miles south of the capital, Pristina, Kosovo's deathly silence is over.

The Serb Information Centre issued a statement that "15 KLA terrorists were killed in an operation ... today". It is clear that not all the victims were rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army - the Serbs regularly call three-year-old children caught in their gunfire terrorists. Some were, though. And so begins another deadly cycle of retribution and revenge.

The attack, so reminiscent of last year's indiscriminate bombardments that left about 2,000 dead, came just as diplomats were heaving a collective sigh of relief. Eight soldiers who had taken a wrong turning and had been captured by the KLA were released after days of negotiations. The diplomats and observers in Kosovo believed they had prevented a major offensive by Serb forces. "This agreement will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis," said William Walker, American head of the international Kosovo Verification Mission, on Friday.

As he spoke, Serbian police units were shelling homes in western Kosovo. It is a region where support for the KLA is intense and where weapons flow in across the mountainous frontier with Albania. By Saturday, after being shown a hillside full of corpses, Mr Walker was describing the scene of the massacre as "about as horrendous an event as I have seen, and I have been in some nasty situations".

The day before, one of the best-known political journalists in Kosovo, Enver Maloku, had been buried amid the sound of distant shelling - a victim of unknown gunmen. Maloku had written that in a province that was 90 per cent Albanian, where the majority had been denied its rights and where peaceful protest had failed, there was a growing case for KLA's resort to arms. The orders for Maloku's assassination are thought to have come from Belgrade.

Kosovo today is a place where an irresistible force isagain meeting an immovable object. The pounding of Serb guns is matched by the determination of the KLA to make their land Europe's newest country. They are spending the winter fund-raising among the tens of thousands of Albanian emigres in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. They are rearming. Before Christmas more than 30 rebels were killed by Yugoslav troops from among a group of 140 who crossed the Albanian border, laden with arms.

KLA commanders say they have learnt a lot from last year, when their campaign was almost strangled at birth by a brutal Serb onslaught. They control the land they lost then, and have ringed it with deep trenches which in this week's mud and rain resembled not so much the Balkans as the Flanders of 1915.

Everyone spoke once of a spring offensive. Kosovo's spring awakening has come early.

Bill Neely is the Europe Correspondent for ITN.