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Serb Attack Sends Villagers Fleeing

January 30, 1999

LJUPCE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Word of the approaching Serb attack reached the people of this northern Kosovo village just before the sound of tank fire.

It was enough to send villagers fleeing for their lives for a second time this week.

Sobbing villagers piled into tractors and horse carts. Women too crowded to sit stood, clutching babies; older children dangled off the sides, clutching rails and perching on bumpers. One boy made a sled out of a battered suitcase, dragging an even younger boy straddling the handle.

Men pulled lagging families out of houses and forced them onto the carts. A cart with a half-blind horse pulled some of the old people.

Ljupce was in full-panicked flight Friday before the first tanks and artillery boomed.

``We have to escape _ but where?″ villager Rustem Gasaj asked, calling his meandering toddler over to his side. ``Look at my child. Look at my child! Can he walk in the snow?″

The newly snow-covered village _ really just a handful of houses _ already was sheltering some of the people from two villages emptied by fighting two days earlier.

Up the muddy road was an outpost for the Kosovo Liberation Army, ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for independence from Serbia and the Yugoslav federation.

A little farther up the road were Serb forces, guarding the main highway between the Yugoslav capital Belgrade and the provincial capital Pristina, about nine miles to the south.

Serb forces were on the move Friday, at Ljupce and to the south, where 24 ethnic Albanians died in fighting. Some 2,000 people have been killed in Kosovo battles in the last year, and 300,000 have been left homeless.

Isolated, without electricity or phones, the people crowded into Ljupce didn’t know about NATO setting a new deadline next month for Kosovo’s warring sides to start peace talks.

They didn’t know about the killing of a Serb policeman the night before, the kind of thing that had touched off killing sprees in villages before.

But they knew enough to be afraid.

An old man, one of many other old men crying, caught the eye of an outsider. He drew his finger slowly across his throat, mimicking a throat being cut, a head being cut off.

In the confusion, some of the villagers were fleeing in circles, not knowing where to find safety.

Some tested a road up the mountains. Others just plunged into the snowdrifts and started plowing uphill.

``We were sleeping in the mountains. We came in the village to try to sleep inside, but now they say the tanks are coming,″ said one woman who had fled the earlier fighting near Godiskwjak and Majac.

International monitors saw some of Friday’s fighting. Barred by Serb forces, they couldn’t determine whether there were any casualties from the afternoon’s clash.

Villagers were more worried about what would happen when night fell, and didn’t wait to find out.

One group headed one way, the boy pulling the child on the suitcase lagging behind.

The rumble of heavy weapon fire came from that direction a few minutes later.

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