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Kosovo Albanians Cite 50 Deaths

June 5, 1998

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ More than 50 Kosovo Albanians have been killed and about 200 are missing since Serbian government forces started an offensive in the independence-minded province a week ago, an ethnic Albanian leader said Friday.

In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency said some of the 400 or so Kosovo Albanians who trekked into neighboring Albania overnight reported five deaths en route _ two elderly people, said to have died of exhaustion, and three small children. About 10,000 refugees have gathered around Tropoja in northern Albania.

In the reported government offensive in Kosovo, four villages populated by ethnic Albanians were destroyed, and another eight badly damaged, said Osman Cacaj, an official of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians’ main party.

Sixteen other villages are deserted as residents fled, Cacaj added.

He listed more than 50 dead and some 200 missing from the latest offensive, concentrated around Decani, some 45 miles west of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

Ethnic Albanians form 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people and demand independence from Serbia and the Yugoslav federation it forms with Montenegro.

Accounts such as Cacaj’s are impossible to verify independently, as both Serbian police forces and gunmen from the Kosovo Liberation Army _ fighting for independence _ block adequate access to journalists and even humanitarian workers.

Kosovo Albanian leaders say information comes from individuals who manage to pass Serbian roadblocks and reach Pristina.

Telephone access to the area of the offensive has been cut for days.

Cacaj described the area around Decani as a deserted wasteland, with some 45 bodies left unburied, farm animals roaming wild and several thousand civilians hiding in the woods, trying to cross the border into neighboring Albania or to Montenegro.

The Serb Media Center in Pristina, close to the Serbian authorities, said meanwhile that a Yugoslav army general, Nebojsa Pavkovic, made a surprise visit to a still-inhabited village in the area, Batusa, inviting any Albanians who fled to return on condition armed men turn in weapons and halt attacks on police and army.

During Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, such warnings were often a prelude to a Serb attack on grounds that the community in question failed to comply.

More than 250 people have died since March 1 in escalating clashes between government forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Albanian independence movement, which Albanian political leaders say acts independently from them.

The clandestine KLA, which first surfaced in 1996, says the peaceful principles of the top Kosovo Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, are futile.

A delegation picked by Rugova and officials chosen by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who stripped Kosovo of its broad autonomy in 1989, opened a dialogue under Western pressure last month. Agreement appears unlikely.

The ethnic Albanians canceled a meeting scheduled Friday in Pristina, saying they could not talk with the Serbs while the latest offensive lasts. The Serbs showed up anyway for the talks, to which Christopher Hill, U.S. ambassador to neighboring Macedonia, is serving as unofficial mediator.

Hill noted that it is ``extremely difficult″ to get a true picture of events around Decani.

``The problem is you talk to one side, you get one view, you talk to the other side, you get a view of 180 degrees,″ he said.

Rugova’s aides are showing more and more sympathy for the KLA, which only weeks ago they shunned.

``Serbs systematically shell the villages in the war zone, burn and destroy Albanian settlements,″ said Rugova’s spokesman Xhemail Mustafa. ``The Serb regime has declared and imposed war on ethnic Albanians. Therefore, we understand the people’s self-organizing on the ground and their efforts to defend from aggression.″

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