PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ A tenuous standoff between Serbian forces and separatist rebels in Kosovo exploded in violence Monday in the worst clash since an October truce _ a five-hour gunbattle in which border guards killed dozens of guerrillas.
The pre-dawn clash along Kosovo’s southwestern border with Albania resulted in Yugoslav army troops killing 30 ethnic Albanians and wounding 12 who were trying to enter the country illegally, the Serb-run Media Center reported.
Sources at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent a team to the site, said 31 ethnic Albanians had been killed, including one woman. Nine others were taken prisoner, two of whom were wounded, the sources said on condition their names not be used.
In other violence, the OSCE sources said assailants opened fire Monday in a Serb-run bar in the western Kosovo city of Pec, killing four Serbs and wounding five others. It was unclear whether the attack was ethnically motivated, however, because the gunmen escaped.
Hours after the pre-dawn battle, ethnic Albanian sources said heavy detonations and shootings were heard from the area of three nearby villages about 45 miles southwest of Pristina that had been sealed off by Serb police.
Ethnic Albanian rebels who have been fighting for Kosovo’s independence have frequently armed themselves in neighboring Albania.
The worst reported violence in Kosovo in more than two months casts further gloom on the diplomatic efforts to bring a lasting peace to the Serbian province, where many believe a resumption of full-scale fighting by spring is inevitable.
Dozens of people on both sides have been killed since an Oct. 12 peace agreement brokered by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke halted months of fighting in the separatist province in southern Serbia.
Holbrooke is expected in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade for talks Tuesday with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley said Holbrooke would ``drive home″ to Milosevic ``the need for progress on the negotiating front.″
After two months of failed shuttle diplomacy, chances of mediating an end to the continuing violence in Kosovo seem unlikely.
Ethnic Albanian politicians insist on a plan that would enable them to break free of Serbian rule, while the rebels say they won’t accept anything short of independence. Serbia, meanwhile, refuses to consider anything more than partial autonomy for the Albanian-majority province.
U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, who met with ethnic Albanian negotiators in Pristina on Monday and who also plans to be in Belgrade on Tuesday, has seen his proposals for a political settlement rejected by both sides.
The report by the Media Center, which has generally proved reliable, said armed ethnic Albanians were trying to enter Kosovo from Albania when the shootout erupted at 2 a.m. Monday near Gorozup and Liken, southwest of Pristina.
Yugoslav soldiers confiscated arms and other material that the Albanians were trying to smuggle in, the Media Center report said.
Municipal authorities in nearby Prizren were quoted as saying that all those killed and wounded were wearing camouflage uniforms with the insignia of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. Eight Albanians were killed in a border clash near the same area on Dec. 3.
Hundreds of people have been killed and an estimated 300,000 were left homeless after Milosevic launched a crackdown against separatist rebels in February.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Kosovo’s Serbs arrived in Pristina to plead with international peace monitors to find loved ones who disappeared five months ago.
About 50 Serbs met with Gabriel Keller, deputy head of the 2,000-strong OSCE peace mission.
Keller received a list of the missing people whom the Serbs believe were kidnapped by KLA rebels, and promised the OSCE would ``try its best to find traces of the missing.″
In another development, the second-ranking diplomat at the French embassy in Belgrade and two other embassy employees were killed Monday in a car accident in Kosovo.
French officials said Gerard Fauveau, the embassy’s first counselor, fellow diplomat Richard Berthaux and embassy security guard Jean-Pierre Latour were killed when their car collided with a passenger bus in Besinje, just north of Pristina.