Serbs block killing fields of Kosovo

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The Independent Online
Serbian authorities imposed a security cordon yesterday where their special police forces have been attacking Albanian villages in Kosovo, blocking roads and intimidating or roughing up journalists and Western officials who tried to get through.

Albanian sources said fighting was continuing in at least one of the villages in the Drenica region, Prekaz, where houses were set on fire by Serb mortars, and that others were still under siege. The official death-toll from Thursday's fighting was 22, including two policemen, although Serbian police forces put the number at 30. Albanian leaders said as many as 50 had been killed.

One of the dead was named as Adem Jashari, said by the Serbs to be a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has claimed responsibility for attacks on policemen and "collaborators". The Jashari family is well known for its opposition to Serb rule in Kosovo, though Albanian officials said there was no evidence he had been involved in armed combat. Details were sketchy and claims by both sides almost impossible to verify. The Serbs claimed to have discovered underground arms caches and secret military hospitals, while the Albanians claimed to have captured two armoured troop carriers.

Journalists trying to reach the Drenica area were turned back at police checkpoints and some of them threatened. The Red Cross reached the town of Mitrovica, north of the combat zone, and saw several of the wounded in a hospital but said they were too traumatised to talk. Another Red Cross group was stopped near the Drenica village of Glogorac and two of its members detained at the local police station.

Witnesses who passed information out of the Drenica area said women and children were trying to flee by road, while menfolk headed into the woods. They spoke of killings by police, based not on the desire to flush out terrorists but rather a crude desire for bloodshed.

After Thursday's apparently fruitless meeting in Belgrade between Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, and Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, Western diplomats continued efforts to calm the situation in Kosovo and persuade the two sides to initiate dialogue about greater autonomy for the Albanian majority in the province.

Ambassadors from five of the six Contact Group countries (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the US and Russia) travelled to the Kosovo capital, Pristina, for talks with the self-styled Kosovo president, Ibrahim Rugova, and Serbian officials. The Russian ambassador sent a deputy in his place.

The Italian religious community that successfully brokered an education accord between Serbs and Albanians 18 months ago also sent out a mediator, Mgr Vincenzo Paglia, to talk to the two sides and persuade them to work out the details of the accord together so that it could be implemented.

The Serbs appeared to have softened their line yesterday, saying they were willing to talk about autonomy issues that stopped short of outright independence for the Albanians. Kosovo Albanian intellectuals suspected this was part of a strategy to pull a diplomatic trick, alienating the Albanians through massive use of force, offering to sit down at a negotiating table confident the Albanians will refuse, and then being able to turn round and claim they are the intransigent ones, not the Serbs.