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  Serbia Attacks Ethnic Albanians

An ethnic Albanian woman in Serbia's Kosovo province joins protests of violence that threaten to ignite wider ethnic conflict. (Reuters)
By Colin Soloway
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 6, 1998; Page A01

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, March 5—Serbian forces launched a new assault against ethnic Albanian rebels today, attacking villages outside this provincial capital in a crackdown that alarmed the Clinton administration and other Western governments.

Police said at least 20 ethnic Albanians and two Serbian police officers were killed in the fighting in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo. The fighting began at dawn. Hundreds of paramilitary police, reportedly backed by helicopter gunships and dozens of armored personnel carriers, attacked ethnic Albanian villages about 20 miles west of Pristina.

Serbian police erected roadblocks to keep journalists from the area, but Albanian sources said this evening that a number of houses in two villages -- Lausha and Donji Prekaz -- were set on fire and that as many as 3,000 women and children had fled to nearby towns. The attack reportedly spread to as many as a dozen villages.

The bloodshed heightened fears -- expressed repeatedly for much of the past decade -- that Kosovo could be the tinderbox that would ignite a broader conflict in the region involving neighboring Albania; Macedonia, which has a 40 percent ethnic Albanian population; and possibly NATO members and U.S. allies Greece and Turkey.

Sources close to the police said the attack on Lausha and Donji Prekaz targeted two prominent families suspected of supporting a new ethnic Albanian guerrilla movement, which is believed responsible for attacks on Serbian police in recent months.

Today's assault marked a further escalation of the conflict in Kosovo, home to an estimated 2 million ethnic Albanians and fewer than 200,000 Serbs. It came only five days after similar police raids in the Drenica region that reportedly killed four police officers and 25 Albanians.

The violence is the worst since Belgrade rescinded Kosovo's autonomous status in 1989 and declared it a part of Serbia. An estimated 200 people have been killed in sporadic clashes since then, but bloodshed has increased in the past year with the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an armed guerrilla group fighting for an independent state.

At the height of the Bosnian war in 1992, the Bush administration warned Yugoslavia that U.S. forces would intervene militarily in Kosovo to halt Serbian action against ethnic Albanians. So far, however, the Clinton administration has not threatened military action, instead pressuring Belgrade with threats of new economic and political sanctions.

The rising violence provoked the North Atlantic Council, a political arm of the NATO alliance, to express its "profound concern." The council also said it "condemns unreservedly the violent repression of nonviolent expression of political views" and deplores terrorism by Albanian extremists. NATO repeated a call by Washington and its allies for the two sides to begin a dialogue on the concerns of ethnic Albanians.

The council directly raised the specter of foreign military intervention, noting that "NATO and the international community have a legitimate interest in developments in Kosovo . . . because of their impact on the stability of the whole region."

State Department spokesman James Foley reiterated Washington's criticism of Yugoslavia's actions, saying that "we view the situation in Kosovo as a very serious matter" and promising "serious, negative consequences" for the government if the situation persists.

"I don't think that I can underestimate the degree of outrage and the degree of concern within the United States government over the recent events," Foley said. "Some terrible, repressive acts have occurred." Washington believes the violence resulted "from the failure of the Serb authorities to recognize the legitimate grievances of [Kosovo's] Albanian population," Foley said. And he said Washington had received credible reports that some Albanians "were, in fact, executed while in the custody of Serb police."

Robert S. Gelbard, special assistant to President Clinton for the Balkans, is to fly to Belgrade Monday after a meeting in London with senior officials from other NATO countries, and to Pristina on Tuesday.

Despite being outnumbered nearly 10-to-1 by ethnic Albanians, Serbs consider Kosovo -- an impoverished, landlocked territory -- the cradle of their history and culture, and have insisted that the political strife in the region is an internal Serbian matter.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic today rebuffed suggestions by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that he grant greater autonomy to ethnic Albanians. After meeting with Milosevic in the Yugoslav capital, Cook said, "I did not feel encouraged to believe that there is yet a recognition in Belgrade that there will have to be significant further steps of increased autonomy to Kosovo if we are to find an acceptable political solution."

In Albania, which long has threatened to intervene if widespread killings of Albanians begin in Kosovo, opposition Democrats ended a six-month boycott of parliament in what they said was an effort to unite the country behind Kosovo's Albanian population, the Reuters news agency reported. Democratic Party leader and former Albanian president Sali Berisha repeated the opposition's call for Clinton to reaffirm the Bush administration's threat of military intervention in Kosovo.

Greece, a traditional Serbian ally that backed Milosevic during the war in Bosnia, today warned the United States against considering military action and criticized U.S. threats of renewed sanctions against Belgrade. "It is unthinkable for another country to intervene in [Belgrade's] internal affairs," government spokesman Dimitris Reppas told reporters in Athens. "Diplomacy must have the first and last word in this crisis."

Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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