War in The Balkans: Troops `butcher entire families'

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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS OF shell-shocked Kosovo refugees staggered across a deserted border crossing into Albania yesterday, telling of new Serb massacres of entire families, while Nato dropped hundreds of bombs on Serb positions only a few hundred yards behind them.

The saturation Nato bombing appeared to be backing fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who had been battered by Serbian tank and artillery fire along the border in the morning.

The day of non-stop bombing, with groups of three warplanes swooping every minute or two and dropping orange flares to confuse anti-aircraft fire before releasing their bombs, was the most intense witnessed anywhere since the Kosovo conflict began. Rocking the ground like an earthquake, it appeared to virtually wipe out the Serb-held Kosovo border village of Planeja, just inside the Yugoslav border.

Border police, customs agents and UN workers had pulled back in the face of the Nato bombing, heavy combat and sniper fire that raged across the Morini border post throughout the morning.

"Kosovo is burning. We thought it was the end of the world," said Qamile, a 65-year-old woman in a white headscarf, after stumbling 300 yards across a new "no-man's land" inside Albania.

"The Serbs came last Wednesday and burnt Tusus [a district in the southern Kosovo town of Prizren] to the ground while many old and disabled people were inside their houses," she said slumping, exhausted and trembling, on to a wooden chair. "All 450 houses were ablaze as we ran. They executed my husband and my son after ordering them to stand against a wall. Then they shot my two sisters' husbands, then they slit the throats of my two nephews. They killed 22 members of my family. We buried them on Saturday."

Most journalists here are avoiding using the surnames of interviewees after freed Kosovars reported that Serb police were monitoring foreign news reports and retaliating against family members still in Kosovo.

"The Serbs took us to Zur [a Kosovo town a few miles from the border] by bus," said one of a group of 50 or so men released from the big state prison near Mitrovica. "Then we ran for our lives. The Nato bombs were all around. Serb forces along the route were hiding in bunkers. It was deafening."

Almost every new refugee told a similar story of a family massacre, saying the Serbs appeared increasingly nervous in the Prizren area after nighttime ambushes by the KLA.

We clambered up a mountainside to a point several hundred yards above the border crossing, and more than 9,000ft above sea level, to watch first a one-sided battle between the KLA on the other side of the glass-like Lake Fierze and Serb troops at Vrbnica on our side.

After KLA fighters could be seen moving through woods north of the lake, then firing what seemed to be a machine-gun from an old stone tower, the Serbs opened up with barrage after barrage of tank and artillery fire on the tower, the surrounding hillside and a watchtower marking Albania's side of the border.

The watchtower, presumably unmanned unless by fighters from the KLA, took several direct hits.

The KLA guns soon fell silent as the Serb pounding sent plumes of grey smoke and red earth up over a wide area and started fires across the wooded hillside.

It was then that the Nato aircraft stepped up their activity, rumbling over us in wave after wave, not low but clearly visible, twisting and turning as they dropped bomb after massive bomb around Vrbnica, below us, and directly on to the picturesque red-roofed village of Planeja, on a ridge on the other side of the lake.

We lost count after 200 Nato bomb impacts by midday but the planes continued to pound both areas, thought to have been evacuated by their residents, throughout the afternoon even after thick cloud came in at around 5pm and as dusk fell towards seven.

It was an astonishing sight to look down on to a postcard-like setting, with the impacts of the ground weapons and the Nato bombs reflected perfectly on the surface of the lake.

"They're turning Planeja into a hamburger," said one Albanian villager in Morini, with obvious approval. Down below, Albanian soldiers in poorly fitting uniforms guzzled Dutch beer in the nearest cafe to the border, while UN High Commission for Refugees workers told the new refugees to walk to waiting buses several hundred yards further on, hidden behind a ridge for safety.

In a field near by, a peasant fed two horses as though nothing was going on and Albanian border police lounged in the shade of trees, staying away from their usual posts outside the customs hall.

Villagers in Morini said KLA fighters had come down from the hills during the night for bread before slipping back into the mountains above the border. There was no sign to tell whether the KLA wase making inroads into Kosovo but there was little doubt that the Nato bombing was, at least partly, in defence of the guerrillas.