BELGRADE, SEPT. 5 -- A delegation investigating charges of human-rights abuses in the ethnically riven Serbian province of Kosovo was arrested this week by local authorities, ordered to leave Yugoslavia and banned from returning to the country for three years, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights charged today.

The Serbian government officially denied that police had detained or expelled the Helsinki delegation and described reports of the alleged incident as "anti-Serbian." The government-controlled press leveled the same charge recently at the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who led a U.S. congressional visit here last week.

The four-member delegation from the Helsinki organization was detained Tuesday in Pristina, capital of Kosovo province, according to Liesel Lotte Leicht, program director in Vienna for the human-rights group. She said they were taken to a hotel, where Serbian police confiscated their documents and held them under house arrest for several hours.

"It is bad news," said the Yugoslav government's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ivo Waigl, when asked about the reported expulsions. News of the alleged incident broke as a three-member delegation from the Council of Europe arrived here today to assess Yugoslavia's application to join that organization.

Waigl said the Yugoslav government views membership in the council as crucial to the country's goal of attaining full membership in the European Community. One of the major criteria for membership in the council is a good human-rights record, he said.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wasn't asked about this," Waigl said, referring to the reported expulsions. "It was obviously handled by the local {Serbian} authorities. We in the federal government are advocating, of course, free dialogue and free access for everyone who is concerned with human rights."

The reported expulsions follow months of harsh measures by Serbian authorities against the 1.7 million ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, a Serbian province that forms the southern quarter of the republic and that until recent years had enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Serbia, the largest of the six republics in Yugoslavia's patchwork of nationalities and regional governments, dissolved Kosovo's parliament in July. Serbian police have occupied the province's television and radio stations and closed the Albanian-language newspaper. Thousands of alleged Albanian separatists have been fired from jobs, and hundreds have been jailed.

After a visit to Kosovo last week during which riots broke out in the province, the Dole delegation said it was "deeply disturbed . . . {by} fresh evidence that Serbian authorities are engaged in a systematic pattern of violating the rights of Albanians." Twenty-one police officers and scores of ethnic Albanians were injured in the riots.

The Helsinki federation described the Serbian government's denial of the reported expulsions as incomprehensible and said it was scheduling a news conference Thursday in Vienna with those expelled.

"This shows very clearly that the situation in Kosovo is really very serious. How will it be possible from now on for independent delegations to go to Kosovo and investigate what is going on there? One can only fear that this will be impossible in the future," Leicht said.

She said she was in telephone contact today with the leader of the Helsinki delegation and was told that the group had been given 24 hours to leave Yugoslavia.

According to Leicht, the reported expulsion "is the Serbian way of responding to the quantity and quality of criticism it has been receiving from international delegations. All have been extremely critical."

Diplomats here saidhat Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic has decided in recent months that he is willing to risk intense international criticism to keep a tight rein on Kosovo at a time when a growing Albanian nationalist movement there is demanding full autonomy as a new republic within Yugoslavia.

"The Serbs have reached a decision that they are going to do whatever they have to in Kosovo, and the rest of the world can go to hell," said a Western diplomat. "They say publicly that they will pay any price. If that includes world condemnation and breakup of the Yugoslav federation, they say, so be it."

Many Serbian and Western analysts also say Milosevic, a longtime doctrinaire Communist who recently declared himself a socialist, appears to be using Serbian nationalism as a means to try to hang on to power.

There is strong anti-Communist sentiment across Yugoslavia, and two of the country's northern republics, Croatia and Slovenia, have voted Communists out of power in free elections. The analysts say Milosevic needs to keep nationalist sentiment in Serbia at fever pitch if he is to have a chance in the republic's democratic elections scheduled for late this year.

For many Serbians, few other issues rival in emotional intensity that of Kosovo, their historic homeland. Because he refuses to compromise on Serbian control of Kosovo, many Serbians say they are willing to forget Milosevic's Communist orthodoxy.

Ethnic nationalism in Serbia has helped inflame similar sentiment across the country in recent months. Newly elected leaders in Slovenia and Croatia want to redefine Yugoslavia and are seeking to change it from a centrally governed federation to a loosely allied confederation of sovereign states. Serbia staunchly opposes the idea.

To complicate the ethnic situation further, the Serbian minority in Croatia recently conducted a referendum to demand that it, too, be granted autonomy. Not surprisingly, Milosevic is a strong supporter of the Serbian minority movement in Croatia.