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  24 Die in Kosovo 'Mass Killing'

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 30, 1999; Page A01

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, Jan. 29—A Serbian police raid on a suspected rebel stronghold in southern Kosovo early today ended in what international inspectors called a "mass killing" of 24 ethnic Albanian men that added urgency to a new Western plan aimed at bringing peace to the province.

Some of the men were uniformed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the separatist ethnic Albanian guerrilla organization, while others wore civilian clothes typical of farmers.

The renewed violence broke out as the United States and five European powers demanded that the Yugoslav government and ethnic Albanians accept a negotiated settlement to the 11-month conflict or risk NATO military reprisals. The U.S.-sponsored plan, which was announced after a meeting of foreign ministers in London, would grant Kosovo wide-ranging autonomy, but it stopped short of meeting ethnic Albanian demands for independence from Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.

In Washington, senior Pentagon officials for the first time said they would be willing to place U.S. troops under foreign command as part of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo in exchange for keeping their number small. Britain, France and Germany also have pledged to contribute troops to the force, which would be deployed only if a peace agreement were reached.

Leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army said in an interview today that despite the latest violence they were ready to accept the conditions set by the West in its peace plan. These include meeting a one-week deadline to end the fighting and forming a single negotiating team for face-to-face talks with the Yugoslav government aimed at producing an autonomy accord by Feb. 19.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook will deliver the Western ultimatum to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and ethnic Albanian leaders in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, on Saturday.

Jaqup Krasniqi, a spokesman for the rebels, said he anticipates that Milosevic will reject the proposal, and said he is pessimistic a political solution can be found before the deadline. But he said that senior Kosovo Liberation Army representatives would nonetheless willingly participate in the talks alongside other ethnic Albanian officials, including Ibrahim Rugova, a pacifist leader at odds with the rebel group.

"If we are ready to talk with Mr. Milosevic, we are ready to talk with each other," Krasniqi said.

In Belgrade, Deputy Yugoslav Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic said Yugoslavia had always favored "dialogue" about Kosovo, but he did not specifically endorse face-to-face negotiations with the ethnic Albanians. Western diplomats said Yugoslavia's response to the peace ultimatum was in Milosevic's hands.

Talk of peace was overshadowed by the 24 deaths in the village of Rogovo at dawn today, which came a week after the mass slaying of 45 ethnic Albanians in the village of Racak, which galvanized the international community into seeking an end to the conflict. The Rogovo killings were condemned by an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as "another heavy blow" to international efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.

Later in the day, Yugoslav army tanks opened fire on ethnic Albanian guerrilla positions near the village of Ljupce nine miles north of Pristina, sending panicky refugees fleeing on tractors and horse carts.

In the evening, two homemade bombs exploded in Pristina, the Associated Press reported. One was hurled into a downtown Serb-owned cafe, injuring seven people, one critically. One of the wounded was an ethnic Albanian woman, and the others -- another woman and five men -- were Serbs. Another device exploded outside a group of shops on the southern edge of the city, causing no injuries. Police said they found a note at the downtown cafe claiming responsibility in the name of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The circumstances surrounding the Rogovo deaths are unclear, partly because international inspectors did not see the dead until at least three hours after they were killed and no independent witnesses stepped forward to describe what had happened. A government prosecutor transported all the bodies to a morgue in Pristina after conducting a two-hour investigation at the site.

When first seen by the inspectors at midday, the bodies of 11 men were inside a bullet-riddled red minibus sitting in the muddy center of a walled farming compound. They said the victims appeared to have died from gunshots as well as a hand grenade. Three of these men wore camouflage uniforms associated with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Three other bodies were found close to the bus. Five bodies of somewhat older men were found in a barn in the same farmyard, and another five men were found dead inside a traditional Albanian meetinghouse located nearby. Many were splattered with blood, and a bandanna was wrapped around one victim's head to hide the fact that much of his face was missing.

British Maj. Gen. John Drewienkiewicz, the head of the OSCE mission in Pristina, described the scene as a "mass killing." Speaking at a news conference, he said there were some signs a battle had taken place, and automatic rifles were strewed near some of the bodies. But another inspector noted that some of the dead appeared to have been killed by shots to the head.

A spokesman for the government security forces in Kosovo said the fighting broke out when an Interior Ministry policeman was shot and killed during a house-to-house search for arms.

But one Western official who visited the scene said it was consistent with a "rampage" and expressed shock that the death of one policeman had resulted in the "lopsided" death of 24 others. "Why were there no prisoners? Why are there no wounded? Why didn't they let us see things as soon as they knew?" the senior inspector asked on condition he not be named. Some residents reported that troops had beaten them the previous night, including one woman who said her arm had been broken.

Rogovo is six miles from Kosovo's border with Albania in a belt of villages that has long had no ethnic Serbian residents. Like most border towns, Rogovo has been a conduit for arms being transported from Albania for the rebels' use.

The killings did not dissuade three senior members of the rebel leadership from saying that the organization had agreed to "respect" the new Western peace initiative.

Krasniqi recalled that the group had earlier wanted the government to release all political prisoners and withdraw more of its security forces from Kosovo before any negotiations began. But he said that "for our people and for our national interests, we will be able to do everything and do it fast," so long as Western countries promise that these demands will be realized eventually.

Krasniqi, along with rebel leaders Ram Buja and Sokol Bashota, said he would welcome a possible solution that provides for the deployment of NATO ground troops in Kosovo. "If they come, we guarantee that nothing bad will happen to them from our side," Krasniqi said. "We are very clear about who our enemy is, and we would welcome them as a friend of the people who come here for our benefit."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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