Albanian guerrillas killed as Serbs send tanks to recapture rebel village

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The Independent Online

Backed by tanks, Yugoslav troops and Serbian police clashed yesterday with ethnic Albanian rebels in house-to-house fighting as they tried to retake a southern village claimed by the insurgents.

Backed by tanks, Yugoslav troops and Serbian police clashed yesterday with ethnic Albanian rebels in house-to-house fighting as they tried to retake a southern village claimed by the insurgents.

A rebel spokesman, named as Commander Profi, said five guerrillas had been killed since Monday in Oraovica, near a volatile buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of southern Serbia. He claimed that rebel positions had not changed since Monday. But reporters saw several destroyed rebel bunkers with abandoned rifles, ammunition and bloodied uniforms, indicating advances by the government forces.

Exchanges of machine-gun fire echoed in the village, less than a mile north of Presevo, astroops moved through Oraovica, towards the rebel-held part of the village. At least one Serbian policeman was injured. Several houses were destroyed, and thousands of civilians ­ most of Oraovica's population ­ have fled to Presevo.

At noon, government forces ceased firing and issued two deadlines for rebels to leave the village. Shooting soon resumed as the rebels ignored the offer. The Serb commander, General Ninoslav Krstic, said guerrillas who surrendered would get amnesty from prosecution, but if they did not, "we'll have to continue with our action".

Oraovica's ethnic Albanian leader, Raif Mustafa, said there was no sign of a rebel surrender and warned of the danger to villagers. "Some civilians had no time to leave the village ...The situation is tense, people are in cellars, including women and children," he said.

The clashes, which began on Saturday, were the worst in southern Serbia in weeks. The UN refugee agency said more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians had crossed into Kosovo since Monday, fleeing fighting and the build-up of Serbian forces.

Nato said that on 24 May Serb forces would move into the final 20 per cent of the three-mile-wide buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. Serb officials saidthe rebels seized Oraovica, on the edge of the zone, to try to stop them moving into the last part.

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