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Fierce Fighting Erupts in Kosovo

December 27, 1998

OBRANCA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Artillery and mortar fire sounded across the snowy fields of rebel-controlled territory in northern Kosovo on Sunday _ the fourth day of the worst clashes in months between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian separatists.

As darkness fell, lead international monitor William Walker claimed a temporary truce had been reached to evacuate the wounded, and the U.S. diplomat voiced hope that ``sporadic fighting″ wouldn’t degenerate into a return to all-out war.

However, both Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and Serb troops remained entrenched in their positions near the northern town of Podujevo, and there was no indication the latest round of fighting was over.

The latest clashes put intense pressure on an already shaky truce reached in October that halted more than seven months of fighting across the secessionist province of Serbia, the dominant republic left in Yugoslavia. Despite the October agreement, neither side has shown any willingness to negotiate a settlement.

The KLA insists on independence for the predominantly Albanian province, while the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic says it will never let Kosovo go.

The reported death toll from a Serb crackdown that began Thursday reached 10 _ all ethnic Albanians _ over the weekend with the reported discovery of another body late Saturday. Four Serbs and an Albanian rebel were reported wounded Sunday.

As many as 10,000 civilians, mostly Albanians, have fled the fighting and many remained in nearby woods in subfreezing temperatures Sunday, according to the ethnic Albanians’ Kosovo Information Center.

Ethnic Albanians forces accused police of opening fire Sunday morning in violation of a truce made with verifiers the previous night after three days of intermittent clashes near the KLA stronghold of Lapastica, 20 miles north of the province’s capital, Pristina.

The Serbs said they had acted to protect and evacuate the fast-declining number of Serb civilians in the area and to remove the body of a farmer whom the rebels killed Saturday.

Police wearing flak jackets and helmets fired from trenches at the outskirts of Obranca village toward neighboring Lapastica on Sunday. At least one Yugoslav Army tank and several police armored personnel carriers were involved in the action, while rebels fought back with machine guns and grenades.

Three Serb policemen were wounded, two seriously, in neighboring Velika Reka after being ``ambushed″ by rebels when they tried to rescue a wounded villager, the Serb-run Media Center reported.

One international verifier at the scene characterized Sunday’s developments as ``serious fighting.″ And chairman Bronislaw Geremek of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which oversees the force of unarmed verifiers, said the mission would be re-evaluated ``if the bloodshed and violence escalate.″

But Walker, whose force is gradually building toward 2,000 unarmed verifiers, denied the province was inevitably slipping back into war.

``It didn’t actually break out into all-out fighting,″ he said, adding that both sides were being ``relatively cautious″ and not using full firepower.

``We’re trying to talk to both sides, get them to stand down, show some humanity one with the other in terms of getting the wounded out,″ the diplomat told CNN after the fighting calmed.

Jorgen Grunnet, a spokesman for the OSCE-led peace mission, said the verifiers had mediated the evacuation of two wounded Serbs and one ethnic Albanian.

A convoy containing some of the Serb armored vehicles left Obranca on Sunday bearing the coffin of 65-year-old slain farmer Milovan Radojevic, who was buried hurriedly in Podujevo. The police fired on the rebels for much of the day from trenches behind his house.

One of the last Serb civilians in the predominantly ethnic Albanian village, Radojevic was shot after he and his family opened fire on the KLA, according to the rebels.

The top Serb official in Pristina, Zoran Andjelkovic, said the farmer’s death was ``another crime committed by Albanian terrorists whose aim is to make Kosovo ethnically″ all-Albanian.

The Kosovo Information Center claimed Serb police were passing out weapons to Serb civilians in the region. It said Serb police were stationed on Podujevo rooftops while many of the few remaining Serbs left.

In October, NATO threatened airstrikes against the Serbs as punishment for a crackdown on Kosovo separatists beginning in February in which hundreds died and 300,000 were forced to flee their homes. The NATO attacks were put on hold after the cease-fire agreement was reached and Milosevic pulled out some of his forces.

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