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World - Europe

Despite Milosevic's pledge, new Kosovo village besieged

Milosovic and Rochan
Milosovic, right, meets with Albert Rochan, political head of the Austrian Foreign Ministry  

Frightened refugees 'have nowhere left to go'

July 30, 1998
Web posted at: 11:14 p.m. EDT (0314 GMT)

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Despite assurances from President Slobodan Milosevic that a weeklong offensive against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo was over, Yugoslav forces reportedly were moving in on another rebel stronghold.

Sources on both sides of the conflict said government forces were threatening the village of Junik, a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army in western Kosovo near the Albanian border.

Ethnic Albanian sources said attempts were being made to evacuate thousands of civilians trapped in the village. But government sources said the town was held by only a few dozen hard-line guerrillas, whose commanders had already fled over the border into Albania.

Offensive over, Milosevic tells EU envoys

Milosevic, who has been under intense international pressure to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo, told European Union representatives Thursday that the latest offensive against the KLA, which began a week ago, was over.

The EU envoys from Britain, Germany and Austria said Milosevic also promised to stop besieging Junik and other guerrilla strongholds in Kosovo's far western reaches. In return, he asked that international sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia be lifted.

By one government estimate, the KLA controls just 10 percent of Kosovo's territory, compared with as much as 50 percent before the offensive began.

Kosovo is a province in Serbia, one of two republics that make up the Yugoslav federation. Ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9-to-1 in Kosovo, and have been pushing for autonomy or outright independence.

International observers calculate that at least 500 people have died and some 150,000 have been displaced since February, when the Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police units began cracking down on the KLA.

Refugees seek safety in woods

The latest offensive has created some 20,000 ethnic Albanian refugees. Near Malisevo, a KLA stronghold taken by the Serbs, hundreds of people were hiding in a crumbling stone farmhouse. Many refugees were trudging from village to village by day looking for food, but retreating to the safety of the woods to sleep at night.

Aid groups made another attempt to reach refugees Thursday. For days, Serb police have blocked them from driving into hills where thousands of terrified people have fled. One refugee worker said representatives of smaller aid agencies have been driving on the back roads of Kosovo, evading police blockades in their search for refugees.

Serb police
Serb police ride in an armored vehicle in Kosovo  

The latest Yugoslav offensive cleared two strategic roads of KLA fighters, opening them to traffic for the first time in months. Many rural villages are desolate, vacant of all but emaciated cows and horses.

Mortar fire has blasted roofs from dozens of red-brick houses. Serb forces apparently set some villages on fire, leaving behind charred walls and the acrid smell of smoke.

EU envoys: Force 'excessive'

The EU envoys said Thursday they were dismayed with the level of destruction, calling it "an excessive use of military force ... totally out of proportion with military targets."

"What has been created is literally a wasteland," German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger said.

In southern hills near Malisevo, thousands of refugees were hiding in a labyrinth of small villages.

Women wearing long skirts and head scarves chopped tomatoes and baked flat bread in one village Wednesday, using flour saved by a local farmer to feed hundreds of people living in a courtyard and stone house. The farmer said he had enough food for another week.

New arrivals trudged the winding dirt roads looking for space in villages already overflowing with people.

Refugees speak of 'ethnic cleansing'

Rumors whispered among the refugees say that this or that village is next on a Serb "list" for destruction. People pleaded with visiting reporters not to identify villages for fear of becoming targets.

They speak of "ethnic cleansing," of a Serb push to wipe the mostly Muslim Albanian population from the face of Kosovo. Other rumors passing among refugees claim that Serbs have butchered civilians in recent fighting, particularly in the town of Orahovac last week.

Serb police say no Albanian civilians have been killed. The wildly differing reports are nearly impossible to reconcile in Kosovo, a region seared by centuries of ethnic hatred. Serbs accuse the KLA of atrocities against their people, and Albanians claim the opposite.

"As you can see, the Serbs have trapped us," refugee Muharem Telaku said. "We were trying to defend our homes, but they are massacring us, killing our children.

"We have nowhere left to go."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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