War In The Balkans: Strategy - Serbs cremate victims in old mines

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The Independent Online
NATO B-52 bombers pounded Serb positions in southern Kosovo yesterday in clear support of Kosovo Liberation Army fighters battling the Serbs in border villages.

The ground fighting raged throughout the day, with Serb artillery firing on KLA men trying to push through a corridor of villages in the foothills of the Pastrik mountains. The KLA fired back with mortars and machine- guns but appeared to be pinned down in the Albanian village of Pogay, less than a mile from here across a lake, until the planes intervened.

In case Serb artillery guns a few hundred yards from us in the Kosovo village of Vermica opened up, we huddled behind an abandoned house near the deserted Albanian customs post with a border policeman. His colleagues across the lake in Pogay described the Serb shelling, over his walkie- talkie. "That one was close. It's getting hot here," we heard one say. "I hope we can survive the next one. But we're staying put."

After more than three hours of that battle, American A-10 Warthog aircraft criss-crossed the sky, three or four at a time, apparently photographing Serb positions. Silhouetted against fine white cloud, they were reminiscent of sharks circling their pray. As they turned, they released bright orange flares, like sparklers, to confuse anti-aircraft fire.

Almost 100 Kosovo refugees - released from Smerkovnice prison after being interrogated and beaten by Serbs - were walking into Albania as the A-10s circled. They said the Serbs seem to be moving troops and para- military forces towards the Albanian border rather than moving them out, in line with last week's agreement. "There's no one moving out of Kosovo except us," said one refugee, weeping with joy as he embraced a cousin working here as a translator. He said the Serbs killed his father last Wednesday.

Some refugees confirmed recent reports that the Serbs were using the silver, gold and copper mines in Kosovo's Trepca region to cremate ethnic Albanians massacred elsewhere. The bodies were taken to the mines at night and burnt to prevent their fate from being known, the refugees said. Then, just as the prisoners, some fainting, others weeping, boarded buses to take them to refugee camps, came the big B-52s. First, they hit the wooded southern slopes of the Pastrik mountains, where Serb artillery had been firing down on KLA fighters in or around Pogay. Their bombs exploded in bright orange flashes then shrouded the hillside in dense smoke. Then came two more B-52s, this time pounding a gentle hillside closer to us, rising from the lake. The Serbs were said to have driven KLA fighters out of that area over the past day or two.

Nato fighter planes then roared overhead, swooping one by one to fire missiles at Serb positions on the other side of the same hill. Puffs of reddish-brown smoke poured from their targets, apparently villages evacuated by residents and occupied by Serb forces. As the skies fell silent towards 5pm and the smoke drifted down the Morini valley, there was no further firing from the Serb guns.

The villagers, and the ragged Albanian soldiers who lounged under trees near the border clutching battered Kalashnikov rifles, continuously asked why Nato was no longer bombing the Serbs' main tank and artillery positions across the border in the village of Vermica and the town of Zur. As far as we could see, Nato has not done so for almost a week.

They said the Serbs' systematic rounding up of men of all ages in the Mitrovica region of Kosovo, and their deportation, appeared to be aimed at turning the area into a purely-Serb enclave. They believed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was thinking ahead to the possible partition of Kosovo into ethnic Albanian and Serb areas. "This could be another Korea, with the Americans protecting us and the Russians protecting the Serbs," one released prisoner said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Kosovo refugees fled the Albanian town of Krume, north-west of here, fearing further Serb shelling and saying they believed the Serbs were building up their forces inside the Kosovo border. In the town's mosque, a dozen wounded KLA fighters shared space with the remaining refugees.