Street blasts hit Kosovo

Burning villages and bloody market bombings bode ill for peace talks this week in Paris
A SURGE of violence, including the bombing yesterday of two crowded markets which killed at least seven people and wounded dozens more, cast further doubt over prospects for the Kosovo peace talks, due to resume tomorrow in France.

The body of a small girl, perhaps three years old, lay on a patterned blanket close to that of a woman at the entrance to the open-air fruit and vegetable market in Kosovo Mitrovica, north of Pristina. Policemen, the investigating judge and international ceasefire monitors trampled the greens scattered on the blood-stained ground, kicking lemons, onions, apples and oranges aside, while trays of uncracked brown eggs sat on tables above the victims.

Another body, that of another woman, lay a little further in, while on the pavement police had chalked an outline around a large pool of blood and fragments of blue metal scattered over the road - apparently the remnants of a bomb. In the town of Podujevo, further east, another two people were killed and 28 wounded in two explosions close to the town centre. A third person was shot dead in a separate incident.

"We heard about the [Podujevo] bomb on the news, but we didn't think it could happen here," Farosh, a Mitrovica market trader, said bitterly. "It happened so fast - there was a big panic." Another stall-holder, 16- year-old Agran, was selling fruit at the time of the blast. "There were many people without hands and legs," he said. "I know some of the wounded - most were market traders."

Another youth was standing beyond the police cordon searching for his mother and 15-year-old sister who left home around 45 minutes before the explosion to shop at the market. "They are still not home, so I'm afraid they were wounded," he said, explaining that as an ethnic Albanian he was too frightened to go through a Serb police checkpoint and head for the hospital in search of news.

Ambulances from the bombing roared along the main road south to Pristina, past a ridgeline wreathed in smoke from villages put to the torch yesterday afternoon. In the distance Yugoslav shells crashed and by nightfall, the hillside was burning brightly.

The situation in Kosovo, "is getting more dangerous", according to Major- General John Drewienkiewicz, the British chief of operations for the Kosovo Verification Mission. Day after day his monitors report skirmishes, find bodies and count refugees fleeing the fighting, partly because Serbs and Albanians live within spitting distance and neither will turn a cheek to any provocation. "It's been getting generally worse, and it's hugely volatile," the general said in an interview last week. "If you slop the petrol all over the floor, eventually someone comes in a stubs their cigarette out in it."

But who will get burnt - apart from the obvious victims, the terrified civilians? Soldiers from both sides put their lives on the line - a role the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels seem to adopt more happily than the Yugoslav conscripts. Analysts say that mobilisation rates have fallen below 30 per cent in Serbia, with most simply refusing to report for duty. "Here everybody is sick and tired of war and fighting," said Bratislav Grubacic, publisher of the independent VIP daily newsletter in Belgrade. Serbs have been dealing with the consequences of conflict for eight years now.

Albanian negotiators leaving for Paris refused to say whether they would sign a peace agreement, although Western diplomats are optimistic, and Serbia continued to insist that it would not allow Nato peacekeepers in its turbulent province. The conventional wisdom in Belgrade is that President Slobodan Milosevic will concede in the end. But despite the West's insistence that these talks should not suffer the receding deadlines of Rambouillet, few think that the end is nigh.

Mr Milosevic and his allies, "certainly don't believe in these Nato threats," said Mr Grubacic. The same could be said for some in the KLA.Rebel commanders meeting at a secret location were said to be divided over disarmament, which could leave Albanian villagers vulnerable to future attack.

Although 15 March was presented as a final deadline for signing the two-part Rambouillet deal, diplomats now say the talks could be extended for another seven days. President Milosevic will be keen to use the time to exploit any chinks in the international community's position. "He could use very well the mistakes of others,"said Dusan Janjic, director of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations. But, in the end, "I think finally he will accept some kind of agreement - an international presence, limited, in Kosovo."

The question is whether the deal will require the catalyst of Nato air strikes, and how many more will die in Kosovo before an agreement is struck. "We can only lose Kosovo by war, which might be a solution," said Mr Grubacic, adding that he meant war with Nato, not the KLA.