Serbs crush separatists' last bastion

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SERB FORCES overran the last stronghold of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) at Junik yesterday, in what appeared to be the culmination of a military offensive launched last month against ethnic Albanian separatists.

Junik, near the border with Albania, was the organisational, logistical and weapons distribution centre for the KLA, which is fighting for independence from Serbia.

The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug announced the fall of Junik, 50 miles west of the regional capital Pristina, after almost two weeks under siege. The report said KLA fighters tried to escape to Albania but were blocked by Serb army border guards and had "dispersed" into mountain forests.

Serbian reporters who got into Junik said up to 1,000 Kosovo fighters were believed to have been based there, with several hundred civilians. The village was allegedly deserted but not seriously damaged.

On the main road linking the towns of Pec and Decani, near Junik, a huge column of Yugoslav army tanks could be seen with triumphant soldiers sitting on top of their vehicles, giving the Serbs' traditional three- fingered salute.

For several weeks, government forces have been driving the KLA from one stronghold after another. Their gains, however, have proved difficult to maintain. Once the Serbs move out, the Albanian fighters, sometimes still in uniforms with KLA emblems, tend to move quickly back in.

Albanian sources in Pristina said that in spite of the recent defeats, the KLA would regroup, reorganise and continue the armed struggle against President Slobodan Milosevic's government in Belgrade. Kosovo's borders with Macedonia and Albania are lightly patrolled and weapons filter in from both countries.

The pro-Albanian Kosovo Information Centre claimed that fighting was continuing yesterday in Logja and heavy artillery had destroyed part of the village. Government forces were said to have attacked with tanks and helicopters.

"It's all a very alarming picture," said Kris Janowskia, a spokesman for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. He said they were concerned about reports of a Serb attack on woods around Decani, where about 20,000 displaced Kosovo Albanians were believed to be camped.

The latest Serb offensive quashed hopeful speculation that Western-mediated peace talks between Belgrade and Kosovo Albanian parties might begin this week.