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Albanian Drive For Independence Is Strengthened by Serbian Flight

By Peter Finn

“It looks like it’s over for the Serbs,” said one U.S. official bluntly. “We can talk about peace, love and democracy, but I don’t think anyone really knows how to stop this.”

The flight of Serbs from Kosovo in the last eight weeks is beginning to look irreversible, a development with profound political implications for the U.N.-led effort to create a pluralistic, democratic society while still respecting Yugoslavia’s sovereignty. Less than 25 percent of Kosovo’s pre-war Serb population of 200,000 remains, and more flee each day.

Without Serbs, the ethnic Albanian drive for an independent Kosovo, an aspiration long resisted by the West, could well become unstoppable, Western officials acknowledge.

Ethnic Albanian leaders, including military and political commanders of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, have condemned the violence and said publicly they wish Serbs to remain. But human rights groups charge that, although no evidence shows an organized rebel effort to drive out Serbs, KLA units are directly implicated in acts of violence against Serb civilians and Gypsies who went along with the brutal crackdown carried out during the war by Serb-led Yugoslav security forces.

“The most serious incidents of violence ... have been carried out by members of the KLA,” said Human Rights Watch in a report released Tuesday.

“Although the KLA leadership issued a statement on July 20 condemning attacks on Serbs and Roma, and KLA political leader Hashim Thaqi publicly denounced the July 23 massacre of 14 Serb farmers, it remains unclear whether these beatings and killings were committed by local KLA units acting without official sanction, or whether they represent a coordinated KLA policy,” the watchdog group added. “What is indisputable, however, is that the frequency and severity of such abuses make it incumbent upon the KLA leadership to take swift and decisive action to prevent them.”

Human Rights Watch reported, for instance, that within days of NATO peacekeepers’ entry into Kosovo, uniformed KLA members began appearing at the Prizren homes of Marica Stamenkovic, 77, and Panta Filipovic, 63, demanding money. On June 21, both had their throats cut. An ethnic Albanian Catholic told Filipovic’s wife, Maria, that KLA members committed the killings, according to Human Rights Watch.

At least 200 Serbs have disappeared or been killed, according to Western and Serb officials.

“Kosovo is being ethnically cleansed,” said Zoran Andjelkovic, who represents the Belgrade government in Kosovo. “And if it happens, this will represent huge failure for the international community.”

In fact, oppression’s spiral is turning. The massive campaign against ethnic Albanians, which was orchestrated by the Belgrade government during NATO’s bombing campaign, is finding a poisonous counterpoint in the wave of terror against Serbs, the former fiat-style rulers of this Connecticut-sized province.

Ninety percent of the 800,000 ethnic Albanians who fled or were expelled from Kosovo after the first bombs March 24 have returned, many to find their relatives murdered and buried in mass graves.