Macedonian assault on Albanian rebels claims another child's life

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Valbona Zymberi died in agony, a terrified child in a hospital far from home. She spent the last weeks of her life in total darkness, crouched in a filthy basement with 65 other people while the explosions of shells and rockets echoed overhead.

Above, the Macedonian army was trying to dislodge Albanian rebels from the village, Slupcane, one of several the guerrillas had occupied. The West is backing the Macedonian government's offensive, nervous that the rebels will trigger a new Balkans war.

Valbona lived at the end of the basement the villagers thought was safest, where they put the restless, frustrated children. And when a rocket fired by a Macedonian helicopter gunship ploughed into that end, it was the children who were torn apart.

At her funeral, Valbona was a tiny bundle of white wrapped in a shroud, a line of stitches from shoulder to waist where the shrapnel ripped her open.

After the basement was hit two weeks ago, Valbona was smuggled through rebel-held villages and driven across the front line by the mayor of Lipkovo. Last Thursday she died of her injuries in hospital. She had lost one of her kidneys and her spleen.

Qefaet Zymberi, Valbona's mother, yesterday recalled the conditions in the basement. "We were in there three weeks and the electricity went off on the first day. We had very little food and sometimes the shelling was so heavy we couldn't get out for water for days.

"When the rocket came into the basement, there was a lot of smoke. It was too dark to see anything but I heard my daughter screaming and I went to get her. When I picked her up I felt blood. I took her to where there was a little light and I could see she was terribly injured. I thought she was going to die."

As the villagers stumbled through the cellar, they found the bodies. All the dead were members of the extended Zymberi family. Selvije Zymberi, a cousin of Qefaet's, lay dead. Beside her were the bodies of her eight-year-old son, Mersim, and two-year-old daughter, Isnije. Susan Zymberi, who was 23, and 18-year-old Jonuz Zymberi had also been killed.

Neale Zymberi, a 15-year-old girl, lay screaming. She was desperately hurt. "At that moment they were shelling too much and we couldn't get the injured out," Ms Zymberi said. Neale died half an hour later.

When the shelling died, Valbona's long and dangerous journey across the front line to hospital in Skopje began.

As Ms Zymberi told her daughter's story, the government offensive continued in the villages around Kumanovo. At least one, Lipkovo, is still believed to be full of thousands of civilians cowering in basements ­ many of them children.

The Macedonian government has repeatedly urged civilians to leave the area, offering several ceasefires for them to do so safely.

Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross rescued 66 women, children and old men from Lipkovo in the first such mercy mission it had been able to make in nine days. "We stayed because we did not trust them," Ms Zymberi said.

Xhemal was one of 500 people who left Matejce last week. When they reached a police checkpoint, the men were put on a bus and taken to Kumanovo police station and beaten for several hours. The Human Rights Watch organisation has documented many similar cases.