Fierce clashes between Serb police and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province sent scared villagers fleeing Tuesday from the rattle of machine-gunfire and the boom of grenade and rocket launchers. One policeman was reported killed.
The new outbreak of violence, which authorities say began when Albanian separatists with mortars ambushed a police patrol, came on the eve of a conference where the United States was to press strongly for sanctions against Yugoslavia for repression by police in Kosovo.
Villagers say heavily armed Serb police surrounded four hamlets in western Kosovo and moved in, launching an action that resembled a Feb. 28 crackdown that left about 80 Albanians dead and prompted an international outcry over alleged human rights violations.
The main party for ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs in Kosovo province 9 to 1, said it was not known whether there were any Albanian casualties. But the Democratic League of Kosovo spoke of a “dramatic” situation and appealed for international help against “Serb aggression.”
The clashes also coincided with the clearest signal yet from the leader of Kosovo’s Albanians that he was willing to enter into talks with the Serbs on the southern province’s future.
Serb state television, in a commentary Tuesday, said the new “terrorist attack” was intended to undermine the prospects for Serb-Albanian talks.
The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said one policeman was killed and several were injured after a regular police patrol was ambushed near the Kosovo village of Rzic.
The fighting occurred down the dusty track leading from nearby Glamoc, a village of 10 houses 25 miles west of Kosovo’s capital of Pristina, toward four Albanian hamlets that were reportedly surrounded by police.
Dazed villagers who escaped the shooting searched for relatives later Tuesday.
“I don’t know where my family is,” said Sadriq Charaj, 18, weeping as he arrived in Glamoc on a horse cart from the scene of the fighting. “They fled.”
Albanians in Glamoc said 40 or 50 heavily armed police in bulletproof vests arrived mid-morning Tuesday. Shooting began beyond the village shortly afterwards, the Albanians said.
Associated Press photographers who reached Glodjane, closer to the fighting, saw police standing outside houses on either side of the road. At one stage, a police helicopter flew overhead.
Photographers who made it farther down the dirt road had their cars riddled with bullets. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989, has come under intense foreign criticism over continued repression by Serb police in the province.
Two weeks ago, he suddenly offered the Albanians talks that his aides said could lead to broad autonomy. But they have ruled out independence for Kosovo, which Serbs consider their national and religious heartland. Serbia is the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.
To date, the Albanians have refused to join talks without foreign mediation. Their leader, Ibrahim Rugova, announced Tuesday that 15 people would be on the negotiating team.
Milosevic made a series of apparently conciliatory moves on Monday. Serb and ethnic Albanian negotiators signed an agreement to return ethnic Albanian students to state classrooms for the first time in years.
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