Ignoring growing international condemnation, heavily armed Serb police swept through villages in Kosovo for the second day Friday to crush an independence movement by the province’s ethnic Albanian majority.
Local leaders in Kosovo appealed to the West to intervene.
With phone lines cut and rifle-toting police turning back reporters at roadblocks, it has been impossible to determine exactly what is happening in the sealed-off Drenica region of Kosovo - but explosions could be heard beyond the checkpoints.
Serb police claimed Friday they had destroyed a “terrorist base” in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians out-number Serbs 9-to-1 and increasingly are demanding autonomy.
But local Albanian officials spoke of massacres, saying Serbs had set homes afire, were shooting at random, and had sent hundreds of villagers fleeing before Serb tanks.
Increased fighting in Kosovo would have grave consequences for all of southeastern Europe, warned Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the largest ethnic Albanian political party in Kosovo.
“Kosovo needs international protection in all possible forms,” he said.
Overseas, there were increasing fears of what might be unfolding in Kosovo.
“This is ultimately a very, very scary scenario. We are alarmed because we have seen it all before. We have seen it in Bosnia,” said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.
Since last week, the crackdown has claimed at least 51 lives by Serb count - 45 Albanians and six Serb police. There was no firm word on any casualties Friday or any independent verification of the Serbs’ death count of 20 ethnic Albanians and two Serbs on Thursday.
German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel urged an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. But diplomats indicated that Russia’s stand - backing Serbia’s right to defend its territorial integrity - could limit any U.N. efforts to stem the violence.
In neighboring countries, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians demonstrated in Macedonia and Albania, urging world leaders to step in. Smaller rallies were held in Vienna, Geneva, Helsinki and Zurich.
Albania put its army on high alert along the border with Kosovo, citing an increase in Serbian troops on the opposite side.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who took away Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, has refused to budge from his position that Kosovo is solely the concern of Yugoslavia, a two-part federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, back from a failed diplomatic trip to Belgrade, said leading world powers would meet Monday to decide “how to bring home to President Milosevic the need for an immediate end to repressive action.”
The Albanian Kosovo information center, which reported 50 deaths Thursday, said there were attacks Friday on family compounds, with houses set ablaze.
Serb police, meanwhile, pronounced their operation a success.
In a statement issued via the official Tanjug news agency, they declared they had destroyed a “terrorist base” in the targeted illage of Donji Prekaz and “liquidated” a leader of the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army, Adem Jashari.
They also said “more than 20” Albanians who had used machine guns, rocket launchers and sniper rifles against them had been slain in the two-day crackdown.
Serb television aired footage from Donji Prekaz showing a house that was nearly destroyed - apparently Jashari’s - with gaping grenade holes. Two bodies were lying on the ground with rifles and ammunition beside them.
Ethnic Albanian officials said Serb police were busing in heavy reinforcements for the attacks, apparently focused on Donji Prekaz and the neighboring village of Llausha.
Policemen turning back reporters at a roadblock outside the Drenica area, 20 miles west of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. “The anti-terrorist action is in progress and the area is off limits,” said one policeman.
Residents of Pristina crowded shops and gas stations to stockpile staples, fearing a possible civil war.
Rugova, the ethnic Albanian leader, said the main Serb goal was to “make Albanians flee their country or accept the Serb rule and give up their demands.
“Ethnic cleansing schemes are the same as those applied in Bosnia and Croatia,” he said. “Drenica is another Bosnia.”