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Kosovo Refugees Recount Day of Death

May 2, 1999

BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanian refugees crossing the border Sunday recounted a day of slaughter in a central Kosovo village and said they were forced to dig graves for the decomposing bodies before being expelled from their homes.

Witnesses claim Serb forces killed at least 32 people in Slovinje. Their accounts, if confirmed, would rank it among the worst atrocities so far in Kosovo.

``Death was all around us,″ said Nebahate Gashi, who claimed her husband, Omer, was among five people executed outside their home on April 15.

Accounts from nearly a dozen other refugees, a half-dozen of whom said they had witnessed mass killings, create a gruesome picture of what allegedly occurred.

Masked militiamen, most with beards and long hair, entered the village near Lipljan, about 10 miles southeast of Pristina, the refugees said. Their uniforms were green, but no one could say with certainty whether they were a special military unit or a paramilitary squad.

People were ordered from their homes, the refugees said. Identity papers and other documents were destroyed and many homes in the village _ known in the Albanian language as Slovi _ were set on fire.

Some people were lined up and shot at point-blank range, such as Omer Gashi and the four others, the refugees alleged. They said others were attacked with knives and at least one elderly woman was fatally burned.

Xhevat Gashi said a neighbor was hacked to death. He also claimed he saw a woman engulfed in flames who fell to the ground.

Authorities later used construction equipment to make two mass graves of at least 16 bodies each, said Xhevat Gashi, a cousin of the widow.

Some refugees claimed the death toll was higher. They say Serbs also fired at people cowering in the forest outside the village of about 4,500 people. One villager, Agim Devshi, estimated at least 45 people were killed overall.

On Friday, authorities exhumed the bodies from the graves and delivered them to family members, the refugees said. Armed police guards watched as families were forced to dig individual graves, they alleged.

``Then we were told to leave at once,″ said Xhevat Gashi.

A U.N. refugee official said the reports are apparently part of a pattern of escalating Serb reprisals in areas near the Macedonian border.

``The conflict appears definitely to be spreading,″ said Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. ``We are hearing stories that could rival Racak.″

At least 45 ethnic Albanians were slain outside Racak on Jan. 15, increasing Western pressure on Yugoslavia to accept a peace plan for Kosovo.

Reported attacks on ethnic Albanians in southern Kosovo have sharply increased the refugee tide into Macedonia, where camps are severely overcrowded and health officials worry about outbreaks of possible killer epidemics such as cholera.

At least 5,000 refugees passed through the main Blace border post Sunday and thousands others were expected to cross over mountains dotted with minefields. At least three refugees died last week after stepping on mines in the ill-defined border between Yugoslavia and Macedonia.

Update hourly