Victims were slaughtered like animals

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IT WAS the deadly silence of the smouldering village that we noticed first. As we entered we saw the corpse of a soldier from the Kosovo Liberation Army, being carried away on a stretcher.

Not far away, in the woods, as the world was about to discover, lay the bodies of the men, women and children murdered by the Serbs - masked men, wearing blue and green uniforms.

Weeping relatives, digging graves for the dead, said most of the victims - nine of them members of the same extended family, the Delija clan - had taken refuge in the gully after Serbian police and troops surrounded the small village of Gornje Obrinje.

Like so many other ethnic Albanians in Kosovo who were terrified by a Serbian military offensive, they had built a crude shack a few hundred yards from their home in the woods, as a refuge whenever troops were in the area.

Neighbours and members of the Delija family said they thought the Serbian troops had caught an elderly member of the clan at his home and had forced him to lead them to his family's hiding place.

"I heard the screaming," said Sadri Delija, one of the family. "When the troops left we found them dead."

But in the village itself, there were only carcasses of animals whose stench of death filled the air. A cow had been tied, in an obscene and mocking gesture, to a post. It had obviously been killed in some ghastly manner.

"They do the same to the animals that they do to the people," said one of the villagers who had escaped the Serbs' latest ghoulish massacre.

Through a pair of binoculars we could see an overturned tank, obviously from the Yugoslav army. It was most likely ambushed by the Albanians. The Serbs authorities have admitted that at least seven police were killed recently, and it was this, it seems, that triggered the latest terrible act of reprisal.

Obrinje has paid part of the price for the biggest Serbian offensive to date in the Drenica region, the centre of the Albanian struggle for independence from Serbian rule.

In the distance rose columns of smoke from what had been the guerrilla strongholds, now apparently burning and probably under the Serbs' control. The surviving KLA soldiers in all black uniforms - a few that we encountered - were desperate. They said the last time they had not eaten in a day.

As we made our way back to the Kosovo capital, Pristina we saw green army tanks and trucks rumbling along the roads, one laden with what looked like rockets. This at a time when Serbia's slick propaganda machine was proclaiming for the benefit of Western public opinion, that "peace reigns today in Kosovo".

There was no sign of the Serbian war machine in Obrinje, this silent village of death. There was no sign of the masked men who came and slaughtered the people whose sole crime was to hide from the descending Balkan winter in the woods. The only Serbs we encountered were some functionaries and police at at the last checkpoint before we entered the town.

Obrinje is by no means the worst atrocity in Kosovo's brutal war. In the overwhelmingly Albanian town of Orahovac, west of Pristina, a few months ago, eyewitnesses said that at least 100 people were killed when the Serbs retook the town from the KLA. There were reports then, too, that the Serbs were shooting people even as they surrendered. And Obrinje was not the first time women or children had been killed.

The difference in Orahovac and in countless other villages and towns in Kosovo is that the Serbs hid the grisly evidence from the world's prying eyes.

This time they did not cover their tracks.