Serbs fire on KLA in fight for hostages

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THREATENING strong measures to combat ethnic Albanian "terrorism", Serb government forces in Kosovo launched a massive counter-strike yesterday to try to free eight army soldiers held captive by the guerrillas.

International officials fear the escalating violence will destroy the shaky ceasefire reached in October. Mediators have negotiated for the soldiers' release, but failed to prevent fresh violence.

A Yugoslav army artillery attack was reported by Serb and Albanian sources yesterday afternoon, even before the deadline passed for the release of the soldiers. The target was two villages near Kosovska Mitrovica, north-west of the capital, Pristina, and the site of the abductions of the soldiers, which happened on Friday.

Government forces started gathering early yesterday for the crackdown. A large Yugoslav army convoy was seen moving through the provincial capital yesterday morning, heading towards Kosovska Mitrovica.

The Kosovo Liberation Army said it had forced the eight to surrender after their vehicle entered KLA-held territory and opened fire on ethnic Albanian civilians.

"The captured will be treated according to international conventions of war and prisoners of war," the rebels' regional command for north- western Kosovo said in a statement distributed to the Al- banian media.

Reports also came of the killing of three police officers on Friday when KLA rebels fired an anti-tank weapon at their armoured vehicle near the village of Suva Reka, 30 miles south of Pristina. Four police officers and two civilians were seriously wounded in a fierce gun-battle that followed.

Rebels in the area told reporters they had attacked the police in retaliation for government shelling of a nearby ethnic Albanian village, which, the Kosovo Information Center said, killed two people.