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Serbs Fear Lives Are Given Away

February 7, 1999

PREOCE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Bitter and disillusioned, many Kosovo Serbs feel their futures are being bargained away by Slobodan Milosevic’s government at peace talks in France.

They accuse the Yugoslav president of embracing their cause and Serb nationalism a decade ago only to gain personal political power. He then drove Kosovo into inevitable war through heavy-handed police rule, they say, paying only lip service to the plight of the Serb minority.

``The government in Belgrade has sold us out,″ said Sava Lekic, 70, the wealthiest man in Preoce, a Serb community just south of Pristina.

Lekic said the delegation that Milosevic sent to the Kosovo negotiations that began Saturday in Rambouillet, France proves his point. Only one of the 13 Serbian government negotiators is a Kosovo Serb _ Vojislav Zivkovic, the head of Milosevic’s Socialist Party branch in Kosovo.

But even his role appears to be minimized by the inclusion of representatives of tiny ethnic groups on the 13-member team, including Kosovo Gypsies and ethnic Turks.

``I bet we could find common ground in negotiations with the Albanians sooner than any Milosevic stooge from Belgrade. It’s not fair to have no say when others decide your destiny,″ Lekic said as his three grandchildren scampered about the courtyard of his family home.

For Serbs here, granting ethnic Albanians control of Kosovo would mean the loss of what many consider the spiritual homeland of the Serbian people. While some will lose their way of life, many in this farming community of 1,500 say it will be an epic betrayal.

Lekic recalls his rapture in 1989 when Milosevic delivered a belligerent speech at the 600th anniversary of a Kosovo battle where Ottoman Turks defeated a Serb army.

During that speech, which triggered his rise to power, Milosevic pledged to Kosovo’s Serbs _ already fearful of ethnic Albanian unrest _ that ``no one will ever beat you up again.″

Ten years later, Lekic and his villagers fear that Milosevic is prepared to break that promise and bargain away their future in the interest of fending off NATO attack and preserving his hold on power.

``I loved him more than my own father then,″ Lekic says. ``Now I know he has betrayed and disunited Serb people everywhere.″

Nestled among fellow Serbs in this ethnic enclave of 17 villages _ living no closer than three miles from the nearest ethnic Albanian village _ the Serbs of Preoce remained untouched by war until Jan. 6, Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve. Then, one of their own _ a 34-year-old security guard _ was killed by a rebel sniper at the Belacevac coal mine where he worked near here.

Enraged by the killing, villagers took out their rifles, erected barricades and sealed off the main road to Pristina. They dismantled them 48 hours later when Yugoslav army tanks rolled up.

Joca Arsic, who unlike most Kosovo Serbs speaks fluent Albanian, recalls days long ago when he used to spend the night at the homes of his ethnic Albanian classmates.

Even he, however, clings to ancient prejudices against the ethnic Albanians, calling many of them ``newcomers″ to the land which Serbs consider historically theirs.

``All this about the KLA, it’s just Western propaganda,″ Arsic said. ``Our army could take them out any time. They’re just a bunch of terrorists.″

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