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Thousands Flee as Serbs Shell Rebel-Held Villages in Kosovo

August 25, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: August 25, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Serbian government forces pounded positions held by separatist rebels in Kosovo province today, forcing thousands more ethnic Albanians to flee their homes.

The hills beyond Kosovo’s airport, southwest of the provincial capital Pristina, reverberated with shelling for a second day. Villages close to the strategic town of Suva Reka, on Kosovo’s main north-south highway 25 miles southwest of Pristina, also were under attack.

Refugees poured into this remote hill village, a scattering of red-tiled farmhouses about six miles outside Suva Reka. Some gathered in the homes of relatives, while others camped next to the tractors and trailers they fled on, building shelters out of branches and leaves.

Diplomats said the government was attempting to clear villages close to major highways and push rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army into an ever-smaller circle of land in central Kosovo. Once the villages are emptied, police and paramilitary forces move in, looting and burning homes, despite assurances Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has given the international community that civilians are welcome to return.

A sweeping government offensive against the guerrillas that began in mid-July shows no sign of letting up. Troops of the federal Yugoslav army and special Serbian police units have attacked and largely destroyed dozens of villages across central and southern Kosovo but do not have the manpower to retain possession of them.

Ethnic Albanians make up about 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people, but their demands for independence have found no support among major Western powers. Western envoys, led by Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to neighboring Macedonia, are attempting to persuade both sides to settle on broad autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia.

The guerrillas say they have taken few casualties in the month-long offensive and in some areas have regrouped in abandoned villages close to government front-line positions.

Serbian officials said rebel “extremists” provoked the latest operation by attacking police on the highway that connects Pristina with the southern town of Prizren, and at the town of Komorane on the main road west of the capital. One policeman was reported killed, while a Serbian journalist and his driver were missing. “The action to crush the Albanian extremist groups remaining in the region is underway,” an official statement said.

About 50 refugees, mostly women and children, crowded into a single room in a farmhouse here in Pagarusa. Musli Bytyci described how all 1,500 inhabitants of the village of Semetiste fled when the bombardment began at dawn Sunday. They had little time to gather their possessions and are short of food. “We only want freedom, nothing that doesn’t belong to us,” Bytyci said.

The only foreigners to visit the village today were journalists. Aid agencies are overwhelmed by the estimated 230,000 people who have been uprooted from their homes in Kosovo since the fighting erupted six months ago. Alerted to the crisis here, the U.N. refugee agency and Oxfam, a British charity, said they would try to visit the village within days.

Three guerrillas, who said they were authorized spokesmen, said rebel forces destroyed three Yugoslav army tanks in the nearby village of Blace. But they acknowledged they could do little against the government’s superior firepower.

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