Shaken villagers who fled a Serb crackdown in the southern province of Kosovo described on Saturday terrifying attacks aimed at ethnic Albanian separatists, including random shootings and the burning of houses.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard from over the hills while police pressed the offensive for a third day. The death toll remained unknown.
Peering helplessly at their blazing homes from the safety of a nearby mountain, Albanian men said thousands of others were hiding in forests, while others were caught in a deadly siege.
“The Serbs came in with tanks and armored vehicles, shooting at anything that moved. Later they set our houses on fire,” said Nazmi Seidiu, who watched his devastated village through binoculars.
Said another, Bedri Rama: “We managed to escape, but many people remained behind. We fear they are all dead.”
The Serbs’ action, which they say is aimed at smashing the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army, has alarmed world leaders. The Serbs have used a large police and military presence to maintain control of Kosovo (pronounced KOH’-soh-voh), where ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the population.
As international pressure built for diplomatic or military intervention, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Saturday that Washington wouldn’t tolerate any more violence, which she blames on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
“We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia,” Albright said in Rome, two days before a key international meeting in London.
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.
The Muslim president of Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat federation accused the Serbs of unprovoked violence and predicted Kosovo will turn into “a slaughterhouse.”
“This is destabilizing the entire Balkans and showing a sad picture - like there was not enough killing after the 200,000 dead in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Ejup Ganic said.
The extent of casualties from the 3-day-old operation, which the Albanians say likely includes scores of dead, remained impossible to verify. The Serbs say that at least 26 ethnic Albanians and two policemen have been killed since Wednesday in the latest sweep - and more than 51 are believed dead in the past week of clashes between police and Albanian militants.
The Kosovo Albanians’ information center said about 5,000 residents have evacuated the area.
Police said earlier they expected to wrap up the action today, but retaliatory actions by militant separatists are expected.
Reporters who finally made it into the pristine green valley that has been targeted this week heard sporadic detonations and saw gutted houses in the distance. Thick white smoke billowed from Donji Prekaz - one of three villages the Serbs have besieged as a separatist stronghold.
Seidiu pointed toward groups of Serb policemen patrolling the village and at least three armored personnel carriers parked on the dusty streets with their heavy machine guns pointing toward the mountain.
“Thousands of women and children have fled and are also hiding in the woods,” said Rama. “We’ll all die here without running water and food if international aid doesn’t reach us soon.”
In a nearby village deep in the forest, 93 women and children from Donji Prekaz had taken shelter in a small two-room house.
Babies lying on a wooden floor and covered with blankets cried in a chorus. One infant was born early Saturday morning on an open tractor-trailer, the mother failing to reach a hospital.
“I don’t know what happened to my husband. I don’t know if this poor little one still has her father,” the mother said, sobbing quietly and hugging the tiny newborn to her chest.
Many older children also were crying.
“When I saw the tanks and the Serb policemen, I ran as fast as I could,” said 10-year-old Rexhep, tears rolling down his face as he spoke of leaving his father, brother and grandfather behind.
A woman who gave her name only as Ramzia, dressed in traditional Albanian baggy silks and wearing a scarf, said she grabbed her 2-week-old baby and ran when she heard shots.
“The world has forgotten us, and no aid agencies visited us. We are desperate and hungry,” she said, with a panicked look in her eyes.