War in The Balkans: KLA claim a breakthrough near border

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FOR TWO months, it has been the escape route for desperate Kosovo Albanians, the border crossing where the world watched television images of distraught refugees pouring from their homeland by tractor or on foot.

Except for a Serb-laid landmine that blew up a carload of refugees, the Morini border crossing was a peaceful, almost idyllic, backdrop to the sad, silent arrival of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who had been robbed by the Serbs of everything but their souls, and the clothes on their backs.

Now, it is no longer peaceful. The conflict that has raged around and above the Morini border post on the main road from Albania through Kosovo to Serbia has moved in. The escape route is now in the heart of a war zone.

Three days of air raids and ground fighting in the area, which continued yesterday, could significantly change Nato strategy on whether or when to bring its own ground troops to the area, either as would-be peace-makers or as any other intervention force, according to Nato officers here.

To the officers, the news is good. They say that Nato's allies in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are creating new corridors into Kosovo while the Albanian armed forces, officially staying out of the conflict while the country is host to more than 400,000 refugees, appear to be lending a military hand.

Both factors could soften up the Serbs in southern Kosovo enough to facilitate a Nato intervention with fewer casualties than would otherwise be inevitable, the officers said.

As Nato warplanes pounded Serb positions a few miles north and east of the Morini border post yesterday, KLA fighters pushed through one new corridor inside Kosovo and were said to be opening another in a pincer movement around Morini aimed at capturing the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.

A KLA spokesman said its fighters had moved from village to village in heavy combat over the past few days along the Pastrik hills on the northern shore of the Beli Drim river and on Thursday captured the Kosovo village of Planeja. Pointing into Kosovo from behind an old concrete bunker from Albania's communist era, a spokesman said: "The next village in the chain is Gjonaj. We'll take that soon and then it's on into Prizren and capturing the main highway. Then, I'll be able to drive from here to Prizren in 25 minutes."

Another KLA source in northern Albania said the KLA, Nato, the Albanian government and its armed forces were co-operating to help the Kosovo fighters establish a bridgehead around the main highway from the border to the Kosovo capital, Pristina. Albania had decided that driving the Serbs from the key border crossing, in the assumption that Nato forces would eventually move in, was very much to its advantage, the source said.

While the KLA was driving its new corridor north of the river, its fighters were also on the southern bank in the Korit Nikut hills above the Morini border post. "They're opening another corridor into the Zuri mountains to give them control of both sides of the main highway," the KLA source added.

The border echoed and trembled yesterday as the Albanian army fired live tank rounds, shells, Russian-made Katyusha rockets and machine- guns at "targets" only a mile from the border - a mile from Serb positions - and only 15 miles from the packed refugee camps in the northern Albanian town of Kukes. Imagine that kind of weaponry being fired between villages, not on a practice range, a mile from your home and you will get an idea.

Refugees continuing to cross the border despite the nearby exercises that greeted them, said Serb forces on their side of the border ran for cover when the Albanian exercises started.

"They jumped into their bunkers and left us standing there," one refugee said. "They appeared terrified. One of them even screamed."

While the tanks, rocket-launchers and machine-guns were fired from near the border, some of the artillery was fired from the edge of Kukes, virtually over an Italian-run refugee camp known as Kukes One - the first one set up in the town - and packed with more than 5,000 refugee men, women and children. Italian and Albanian soldiers ordered the refugees to stay in their tents but most peeked out to see the big guns smoking and hear the churning of the shells through the air from an area known as Sixteen Hours Bridge. The refugees were not scared. "We want to burn the shkjau (an Albanian word for Serbs) the way they burnt our houses," one said.