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Serb Police Sweep Rebel Stronghold

Kosovo: Move is retaliation for officer's death. NATO commander repeats warnings about allied intervention.

December 22, 1998| From Associated Press

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Serbian police carried out a sweep of an ethnic Albanian stronghold in Kosovo in retaliation for the killing of one of their officers Monday in escalating violence that has increased fear of a return to all-out war in the troubled province.

In brief talks with the heads of Yugoslavia's Serb-led army in Belgrade on Monday, NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, repeated warnings that the alliance might intervene if fighting between Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels continues, sources said on condition of anonymity.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic averted threatened North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes when he signed a U.S.-sponsored deal in October, promising an end to the military campaign against separatists in the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian province.

The Serb-run Media Center reported that a 52-year-old police officer, Milic Jovic, was killed by unknown assailants in Podujevo, about 20 miles north of Pristina, the provincial capital, early Monday. A woman accompanying Jovic was wounded in the leg, the center said.

Podujevo is an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian town. Tensions there rose in past weeks as local Serbs complained of a growing guerrilla presence and demanded that the government protect them.

The town was sealed off while Serbian police brought in reinforcements, said the Kosovo Information Center, which is close to the ethnic Albanian leadership. Sporadic shooting could be heard from an area northeast of the town, the center said.

Hysen Fazliu, a spokesman for the main ethnic Albanian party in Podujevo, said the Serbian forces clashed with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and that an unspecified number of ethnic Albanians were arrested.

The KLA spokesman in the Podujevo region, Luizim Oraca, said the clash lasted two hours and that the "enemy was forced to withdraw, and one of their tanks was destroyed." The report could not be independently confirmed.

Jovic's killing is the latest in a series of setbacks for Kosovo's fragile truce. It was certain to enrage the Serbs, already furious over last week's killings of six Serbian youths and a prominent official.

The attack on Jovic also heightened fears that violence in Kosovo is moving from the rugged countryside to the towns.

Several hundred Serbs staged a rally Monday in Kosovo Polje, a few miles west of Pristina, demanding protection against what they say is increasing danger from the ethnic Albanians.

The crowd booed and jeered as Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic declared "terrorism has been defeated" and "only gangs of criminals are left out in the field."

Attempts at drawing up a detailed plan for the province's long-term future have failed so far. Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90% of the population, want independence. Serbia refuses to give up control over the province.

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