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Clashes in Kosovo leave at least 22 dead

Yugoslav army involved in crackdown

March 5, 1998
Web posted at: 7:01 p.m. EST (0001 GMT)

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Yugoslavian security forces launched a crackdown on ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the restive Serbian province of Kosovo Thursday, with at least 22 people reportedly killed in the fighting.

The Kosovo Information Center, a pro-Albanian group, said a dozen villages were attacked in the Drenica region west of Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up almost 90 percent of the population.

Two villages -- Prekaz and Luasha -- were shelled by security forces, which included Yugoslav army troops as well as police with tanks and helicopters, Albanian refugees said.

Television in Serbia, one of the republics that makes up Yugoslavia, reported that 20 Albanians and two policemen were killed in the fighting in Prekaz, where houses were reportedly burning. Local Kosovo media reported higher numbers of dead and wounded.

Background in Brief
Ninety percent of inhabitants in the Serbian province of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians. In 1989, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stripped the region of its autonomy. Ethnic Albanian institutions, such as schools and political parties, went underground. Serbians consider Kosovo the cradle of Serbian culture, and the region played a key role in the early days of the war that would eventually disrupt the former Yugoslavia.

A spokesman for Kosovo's Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugove, termed the situation "dramatic" and said "massacres" were being carried out. But Serbian authorities said accounts of the crackdown were being exaggerated.

Serbian police armed with assault rifles kept international reporters out of the area.

The Yugoslav Interior Ministry in Belgrade confirmed the crackdown in Drenica, saying it was a "retaliatory action" following attacks by "Albanian terrorists." Serbian police said they moved into the Drenica region after two policemen were wounded in an early morning attack.

At least 25 Albanians and four Serb policemen were killed in clashes over the weekend in the same region, which is a bastion for separatists seeking Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia.

Thursday's crackdown was aimed at members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks on Serb security forces over the last two years. It was believed to be the first time that Serbian authorities have used the army in operations against the KLA.

The fighting erupted as British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, representing the European Union, was in Belgrade for a meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Cook urged peace talks with the Kosovo Albanians.

But Milosevic rebuffed the overture, telling Cook that his government intended to root out terrorism in Kosovo, according to the Tanjug news agency.

The international community has been pressuring Milosevic to end the conflict peacefully. The United States calls the latest police attacks "an outrage." As punishment, it is withdrawing economic concessions it extended to Serbia just last week.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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