THE SERBS mounted spectacular acts of violent defiance yesterday, even as foreigners withdrew from Kosovo in expectation of possible Nato air strikes.
The Yugoslav army did not even wait for international ceasefire monitors to cross the border before launching a ferocious attack on rebel-held areas in Kosovo, forcing thousands of civilians to flee.
Seven fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army and one Serb policeman were reported to have been killed.
A Nato meeting in Brussels today will discuss possible acceleration of planned air strikes in the light of the latest ethnic cleansing and bloodshed.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said that preparations for air strikes were under way and they would take place in "a matter of days" if the Serbs do not back down.
Just outside the village of Dumnica, a crowd of 30 men, women and children carrying plastic bags walked grimly down a muddy track to the main road linking Pristina to the northern town of Vucitrn, hoping to escape the shelling. "We have done this four times today, but the police keep turning us back," said Elmaze Bajrame. The villagers were told that they would be shot if they tried to leave; they also faced death if they returned. Villages were attacked and set on fire.
Elsewhere, too, Yugoslav armour was on the move. Four or five tanks, backed by infantry, moved into Breznica. By mid-afternoon, the village was in flames. On the hill beyond, another village burned, sending clouds of smoke towards the mountains, where Yugoslav troops backed by artillery were moving through the Shala region held, until a few days ago, by KLA. A photographer from Associated Press was slightly injured by a sniper's bullet.
In Srbica, masked men swept through the town. The rebels were also under attack around the northern town of Podujevo, with the main road north blocked by armoured personnel carriers and a tank. Police turned journalists back with sarcastic quips: "We are surfacing the road and you cannot pass."
Xhevat Miftari was driving a tractor out of Breznica, but he is not optimistic. "From now on, it's going to be a catastrophe for us because the OSCE has gone."
The fresh outbreak of fighting will push Nato towards making a tough decision: whether or not to launch a high-profile aerial assault on Yugoslavia, despite the lack of any clear strategy for what happens afterwards, and despite domestic political opposition in the US.
On previous occasions, the West has backed down at the last moment from its military threats. This time, however, confrontation seems more inevitable than ever before.
REPORTS PAGE 21, PROFILE PAGE 27
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