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Ethnic Albanians Fill Camps As War Rages On in Kosovo

By R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
VRBOVC, Yugoslavia

The sound of crying children comes from nearly every corner of the small field where more than 110 ethnic Albanians are camped outdoors in this remote mountainous area of Kosovo and swirls in the air with the noises of sheep and cows grazing at a nearby stream. But all of the adults are silent, from exhaustion and obvious desperation.

Many of those in the encampment have been here for a day or two, but more women and children arrive every few minutes on open carts pulled by horses or farm tractors.

They have all fled their homes; many have also been chased from the towns they where they had sought sanctuary for the past few months. On the carts are all the worldly possessions they could grab: a few bags of clothing and towels, a suitcase or two, several carpets, maybe a foam mattress folded in half.

Zemrje Ahmete, who is 1-year-old and dressed in a jumper decorated with dalmatians from the Disney movie, refuses to be soothed by her mother, Saebahate. Vitim, a 4-year-old wearing a T-shirt with Tom and Jerry cartoon characters, watches vacantly from the edge of a nearby blanket, hungry and uncomprehending. Their parents say that they fled their home in the nearby village of Izbica on Monday, when government troops shelled the town and then set fire to some of the houses there.

On the 12th day of a massive military operation by troops of the Yugoslav army and Interior Ministry against members and supporters of the ethnic Albanian rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, the number of refugees is growing and their plight is worsening. Here in the Drenica region, west of the capital of Pristina, tens of thousands who have fled shelling and fires now have little food or fresh water, and no shelter.

Moreover, with the conflict widening each day, there is less and less sanctuary available where they might escape the fighting. Tuesday afternoon, for example, long columns of smoke rose above the hills from Lausa, a village south of here that has long been a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the site of one of the rebels' first attacks on Serb policemen last year. The Serb-run government media center in Pristina announced this afternoon that the village, which had been shelled for several days, is now "neutralized."

According to the reports of the refugees interviewed here and in two nearby villages, other battles have taken place in recent days in the Drenica towns of Rezala, Poljance, Morina and Ovocarevo, in which the rebels also suffered setbacks. "They attacked with many forces," said Naim Bardeiqi, a 27-year-old uniformed fighter with the guerrilla group who was helping to treat some of those who were wounded. "It was too much. We tried to resist."

Bardeiqi said that government troops were evidently trying to attack the rebel force from all sides and separate some of its key elements from one another.

He also said that the rebels were doing everything possible to evacuate civilians from towns that come under attack but that in some cases had not fully succeeded, leaving civilians exposed to the fighting. He said that despite the recent losses, the Kosovo Liberation Army would not stop trying to win Kosovo's independence from Serbia until "every soldier is dead." Kosovo is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

Several refugees separately offered identical accounts of assaults that began with shelling and progressed rapidly to the deliberate torching of homes. "They shot at anything," said Myrveta, 19, who fled the nearby village of Baja and took refuge on a mountainside for several hours. There, she was able to see army tanks move along a nearby road along with soldiers who had painted their faces black. "We saw them throwing cans (of gasoline) and burning everything," she said.

"We ran away because they shot at us" with mortars, said Antigone, a 19-year-old from Acarevo who was seated on one of the carts. "Some of the shells were fired just 20 (yards) away. We spent two nights in the mountains." Bibe, 24, who was on the same cart, said she too became scared as the shelling came nearer and nearer to her home. "We saw all the houses burned."