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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Serbs Load Thousands on Trains Out of Capital

After clearing ethnic Albanians from the countryside, Milosevic appears to have set his sights on Pristina.

April 01, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Herded by Yugoslav soldiers ordering them to keep moving, ethnic Albanians were marched in a grim column to Pristina's railway station Wednesday and loaded onto trains bound for the Macedonian border.

At least 7,000 men, women and children, most with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, streamed silently through the center of Kosovo's provincial capital late Wednesday afternoon to the train station.

"Police came to my house and said, 'Go! Go now! Go to Albania!' " a frightened man with a wife and two children said in halting English. His family had been expelled from Pristina's Velanija district, he added.

After clearing out much of the ethnic Albanian majority from vast swaths of Kosovo's countryside, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears to be setting his sights on Pristina.

One middle-aged man on crutches hobbled beside a woman carrying a baby swaddled in a dirty blanket. Farther along the terrified mass of people, a mother pushed a child in a stroller.

A child's cries broke the silence, but the other marchers walked with no more than a few whispered words, their eyes locked straight forward. Several held hands, perhaps steeling themselves against shouts of abuse from a Serbian civilian in T-shirt and jeans who was swinging a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle at his side.

Even as the sun set behind dark clouds, soldiers were still yelling at the expelled Kosovo Albanians to keep moving to the train station, where no independent witnesses were allowed to see what happened to them next.

The solemn procession--families with no belongings, and elderly people leaning on each other to keep from falling under the crush of people--fit a pattern of "ethnic cleansing" reported from across Kosovo.

Local government officials couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night, but Pristina's semiofficial Serbian Media Center claimed that the ethnic Albanians had chosen to suddenly leave their country, most without any luggage.

"They asked for protection and the police gave them protection," said Radovan Urosevic, who runs the media center. "Some madman might come and shoot them."

Urosevic said the refugees were being taken south to the Macedonian border. Serbian police and paramilitary groups have driven half a million more refugees from their homes across Kosovo, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Amid an expanded NATO bombing campaign, Serbs and ethnic Turks also have been leaving the capital in larger numbers over recent days. As NATO's air war grows more fierce, Kosovo's capital is being abandoned to the gunmen, the looters and the weakest who have no way out.

At least one prominent Kosovo Albanian, human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi, and his two sons are known to have been taken away by Serbian police and executed.

NATO says five more ethnic Albanian leaders and intellectuals have been killed in Pristina in recent days, but a U.S. source in Brussels said there are indications that at least one of them, peace talks negotiator Fehmi Agani, is alive.

Local Serbian authorities insist that pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, whom Kosovo Albanians elected their president in an unofficial ballot, is still alive and living at his Pristina home under police protection.

Before the forced march Wednesday, Serbian police and soldiers moved slowly through another of Pristina's ethnic Albanian neighborhoods, shooting short bursts from their Kalashnikovs and terrorizing people hiding in their homes.

"Paramilitaries," a middle-aged ethnic Albanian man said as he held close to a corner wall and motioned for a foreign journalist to take cover with him.

As he spoke, another man casually walked around a curve in the deserted street about a block away. He was dressed in the olive drab fatigues of a soldier, and he cradled an AK-47 in his crossed arms.

A resident of the northeast Pristina district contacted two hours later by phone said her family had fled the night before because two Serbian snipers had taken up positions in the house next door.

"They were here yesterday, in front of my door, with masks and black-and-blue and green uniforms," she said, breathless with fear. "They are driving around everywhere. They have so many stolen cars."

There was no immediate evidence Wednesday that the Serbian gunmen were rounding up civilians in that northeast Pristina neighborhood or ordering its residents to leave.

However, dozens of people were leaving the neighborhood, most of them women and children walking with a few bundles and suitcases or driving out in packed cars.

There was no sign of panic or a mass exodus, but they may have been trying to escape with what they could before soldiers and members of paramilitary groups ordered them to leave with nothing.

In the street next to where the Serbian gunmen were firing their Kalashnikovs--a single shot here, a burst of three or four there--ethnic Albanians were going to and from the few shops still open, sticking close to the walls.

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