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Thousands Flee Kosovo after Serbs and Albanians Clash

By Peter Finn
The Washington Post
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia

Heavy fighting erupted in northwest Kosovo Monday between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, forcing thousands of civilians to flee villages and underlining the gathering tension in this Yugoslav province in advance of a final half day of peace talks in France.

Between the towns of Vucitrn and Mitrovica, there were sustained engagements between the two sides, and 3,000 villagers fled their homes as the fighting escalated, according to Western monitors. There were also skirmishes to the east of Mitrovica, outside the town of Podujevo.

By this evening, civilians were reported to be returning home as the shooting abated. But it is unclear if there were any casualties because Serbian forces prevented reporters and monitors from entering the area.

The latest fighting follows an assault on two unarmed international monitors by Serbian police Sunday evening. The monitors, citizens of Luxembourg and Lithuania, were watching Yugoslav troop movements when they were approached by two uniformed police officers who exited a civilian bus, according to a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring Yugoslav compliance with an October agreement to scale back its military presence in Kosovo.

As the police approached the monitors' vehicle they put on black masks and demanded identification. They then asked the driver of the vehicle to get out and he refused, officials said. One of the police officers punched him, dragged him out of the vehicle and punched him again as he lay on the ground. The second monitor was also assaulted as he called on a radio for help, the officials said.

"We consider this a very serious incident," said Beatrice Lacoste, a spokeswoman for the OSCE, who said the organization was lodging an official protest with the Yugoslav government.

OSCE officials have said that tension between police and monitors has been rising in recent days. A military extraction force stands ready in neighboring Macedonia to remove the monitors if the peace talks fail.

Some journalists also have reported receiving threats from Serbian police who told them they would be targeted for retribution if NATO attacks Yugoslavia.

West of Pristina Monday, in a Kosovo Liberation Army compound in the village of Likovac, guerrillas monitored television and radios for news reports from France.

"With Serbia it's very difficult to make a deal," said Habib Morina, 42, dressed in fatigues and carrying a rifle. "We don't have great hopes. If it fails we are going to continue the war."

Morina and other guerrillas said they were willing to accept autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia provided there is a referendum on independence after three years.

But they refused to remark on how they would react if the ethnic Albanian negotiating team in France signs on to something less.

"We trust our representatives," said Mistar Shala, 41, as dozens of guerrillas milled around in the background. "They know what they are doing."

The Kosovo Liberation Army announced Sunday that following an election among the members of its general headquarters, its principal commander is now Sylejman Selimi.