Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Kosovo, Serbia, Yougoslavia > SERBS REPORTEDLY USE GAS TO TAKE REBEL TOWN


August 5, 1998

by Guy Dinmore
Special to the Tribune
August 5, 1998

VRBOVC, Yugoslavia — Government forces battling ethnic Albanian rebels in Serbia’s Kosovo province used heavy weapons and a helicopter spraying gas to capture one of the last remaining guerrilla strongholds, according to survivors who fled Tuesday. Officials confirmed that the village of Lausa in the central Drenica region had fallen and said Serbian police “neutralized armed groups of Albanian extremists.

The attack on Lausa added to the exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees. The UN refugee agency estimates that 200,000 people, a tenth of the province’s total population, have been displaced in the five-month conflict.
“I think we are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe if people cannot return to their homes in safety soon,” warned Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia.
Gani Gecaj, a fighter with the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army, said that Lausa had come under heavy bombardment and that missiles had left craters several feet deep.
Reporters on Monday heard several powerful detonations from the area of Lausa, much louder than the shelling from tanks and artillery of nearby villages.
Gecaj said a military helicopter flew low over Lausa spraying gas over houses. He described symptoms of stinging eyes, burning throats and nausea.
Yugoslav army tanks backed by infantry and police wearing gas masks then overran the village, which had been besieged since March, Gecaj said.
Officials said there were no civilian casualties in the operation, but Gecaj said 150 to 200 people were missing.
Lausa was of military as well as symbolic importance for the KLA. It was there last November that three fighters of the underground movement appeared in public for the first time, to attend the funeral of a local teacher–a relative of Gecaj who had been gunned down by police.
Since those early beginnings, the KLA has mustered a force of several thousand, and just a month ago it had taken control of large areas of central Kosovo as well as areas along the border with Albania, its main source of weapons and new recruits.
But a weeklong government offensive, which has drawn only muted response from Western capitals that had previously threatened military intervention by NATO, has sent the KLA reeling.
Serbia’s official media have proclaimed victory for the government in what it calls a justified response to attacks by “terrorists” on a land revered by Serbs for its ancient Orthodox Christian monasteries.
The KLA and the Kosovo Albanian political leadership accuse Washington and its allies of giving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic the “green light” to destroy the rebels as a significant force before negotiations begin in earnest on the future status of Kosovo.
No government, not even sympathetic Albania, supports independence for Kosovo, fearing that would lead to a bloody redrawing of Balkan borders.
Plumes of thick smoke rose above Lausa and surrounding villages Tuesday as police carried out what diplomats have called “scorched earth” tactics to dissuade the Kosovo Albanian majority from harboring KLA fighters. Reporters and diplomatic observers were prevented by police from entering Lausa.
More than a dozen villages in the Drenica area have been severely damaged or destroyed by artillery or by police dousing farmsteads with gasoline. Haystacks and fields of corn and wheat have been reduced to cinders.
A steady stream of refugees, most perched on tractor-pulled trailers piled high with belongings, have poured out of the Drenica region.
About 1,000 refugees have set up camp alongside a muddy creek in the Vrbovc valley, just 20 miles from the provincial capital of Pristina, but a long journey for aid workers over twisting hill tracks.
With expressions of exhausted bewilderment, they struggled to find shade from the intense summer sun under makeshift shelters of blankets and leafy branches cut from surrounding forests.
Zemrije, just 1 year old and wearing a 101 Dalmatians T-shirt, tottered in the clearing, wailing. Her mother, Saebahade Ahmede, scooped her up and described how Serbian forces had rained artillery on their village of Izbica.
“They burned our houses and fields. They killed the cows. Four people were wounded going to mill the wheat,” she lamented. “We’ve no food for this winter. What was not harvested, they burned.”
Several KLA fighters in camouflage fatigues organized the distribution of a few aid parcels left by relief workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At a nearby rebel checkpoint, a KLA fighter and paramedic said he was struggling to cope with the wounded among the refugees. Naim Bardiqi, who, like many ethnic Albanians living abroad, had returned from Germany to join the war, said that two children and a pregnant woman had died in his care.
Children were often among the victims, he said. “They can’t run so fast and don’t know how to hide themselves,” he said.

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