WAR IN THE BALKANS: KLA tries to seize border crossing

Ground Combat
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The Independent Online
FIGHTERS OF the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) clashed with Serb forces on the Kosovo-Albanian border for the second straight day yesterday and were said to be trying to stage a major coup by capturing the Serb-held side of the border crossing. But the combat threatened to close the frontier to the thousands of Kosovars still trying to cross to refugee camps at Kukes on the Albanian side.

The two sides exchanged artillery, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire on the northern shores of Lake Fierze, only a few hundred yards from the border crossing on the southern bank. Local residents say KLA men were also moving through wooded hills on the southern bank in the hope of driving Serb forces from the Kosovo side of the check point near Vbrnica.

The KLA is said to control most smaller border crossings between Kosovo and Albania but driving Serb forces from their side of the key Morini crossing, now known by television viewers worldwide, would be a dramatic military victory and propaganda coup. It could, however, block the exit to Albania used by most Kosovo refugees since the crisis began in late March.

Nato aircraft could be heard, and occasionally seen, above the border area throughout the day but their targets could not be seen. Several screeched over the valley where the ground fighting raged, but did not appear to drop bombs or fire missiles.

To the background noise of shells, mortars and continuous gunfire, hundreds more refugees, looking stunned, crossed into Albania yesterday. A group of 200 ragged men walked across in single file, apparently not yet able to shake a habit forced upon them by their guards at the big Smrekovica prison in Kosovo.

Although the 500 yards of road inside Kosovo was deserted because of the dangers of Serb snipers or stray bullets, relatives who they had not seen for up to two months ran forward to greet them with endless embraces. Several convoys of up to 100 people on tractor trailers also trundled in, the occupants looking dazed either by their expulsion experiences or the nearby gunfire.

With the United Nations High Commission for Refugees apparently having told its staff that the border was too dangerous, there was no one to meet the new arrivals and they continued on along the winding mountain road to Kukes on their own.

A Chilean newsman was wounded in the head, apparently by a Serb sniper, as he and his television crew filmed activity at the border. An Albanian border police officer ran to drag him from the spot and he was flown by helicopter from Kukes. The crew had been filming from alongside one of Albania's trademark concrete military bunkers - built by Enver Hoxha's Communist regime, which took power in 1944 - beneath the Albanian flag that marks this side of the frontier.

But the bunker was in the direct line of sight of a Serb sniper position 300 yards up a nearby hill. After the shooting, most journalists, refugee workers and even some border police moved back 500 yards to a spot invisible to the snipers.