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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Allies, Orthodox Serbs Wait for Other to Crack First

Holiday: As the faithful play a traditional Easter game, NATO tries to break Yugoslav leader with strikes.

April 12, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRACANICA, Yugoslavia — At the close of Orthodox Easter services in Serbia's cherished 14th century Gracanica monastery, the priest invited soldiers and police to be the first to kiss the cross, and then his hand.

Young men in green camouflage uniforms, with combat knives or handguns strapped to their webbed belts, bowed and received broken bits of bread, the blessed flesh of Christ.

And then a nun dressed in a black habit reached into a bucket and drew out, for each man, an egg--dyed red to symbolize life. By long tradition, once outside the church they had to play a game.

After one contestant holds out an Easter egg grasped firmly in one hand, his opponent is invited to knock it sharply with his own egg, to see whose will crack first. The winner can expect good luck.

On this Orthodox Easter Sunday, when NATO bombs and cruise missiles hit targets night and day across the province of Kosovo, there was no prize for guessing a fighting man's wish.

But near the monastery's front door, which the faithful kissed as they entered, worshipers lighted dozens of candles and prayed for God to protect their loved ones, whether sick, in danger or dead.

There was also an open registry for anyone who wanted to write down thoughts for safekeeping in a monastery that got its first printing press and library in 1539.

"May God save all the Orthodox and the Serbs in the country," said one Easter message, signed by Miodrag Milovanovic.

"Adolf Clinton," he added, "God will judge you for all these crimes."

Despite pleas from the World Council of Churches, the pope and other religious leaders, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not pause in its air war to allow predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbs a peaceful Easter.

NATO insists that it has to intensify its airstrikes to put more pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in the hope that he will finally crack and accept NATO's terms for peace in Kosovo.

Milosevic and his security forces showed no mercy to several hundred thousand Kosovo Albanians driven from their homes, so NATO sees no reason to show any to the Serbs.

At least 50 NATO bombs and missiles struck targets Sunday in Kosovo alone, according to Serbian officials.

Three Serbian civilians, including an 11-month-old, were killed in a NATO attack on the village of Merdare, which lies on the administrative border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, the authorities said.

The dead were identified as Bozina Tosovic; his baby girl, Bojana; and Dragan Bubalo, who was killed while driving a gray Ford when the bombs fell, leaving at least 10 craters in the village.

Tosovic's wife, Marija, who is six months pregnant, was reportedly among villagers wounded in the attack.

At its daily briefing in Brussels, NATO did not respond to Serbian allegations that its warplanes had devastated a village containing no military targets.

"As you can see, last night NATO had a night of relative restraint," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters Sunday evening. "We were mindful of the Orthodox Easter celebration.

"At the same time, the Yugoslav armed forces continued to demonstrate signs of wear and tear as a result of our operations," he said.

When reporters pressed Shea to explain whether a shorter-than-planned list of airstrikes had more to do with continued bad weather than with NATO's restraint, he refused to respond.

NATO and U.S. military officials at the Pentagon claim that, after nearly three weeks of sustained bombardment, Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian police units are doing their best to hide and stay alive in Kosovo.

But southwest of the provincial capital, Pristina, on Sunday, during a driving tour that was neither restricted nor monitored by Serbian officials, there were few signs that Milosevic's troops were in retreat.

At two roadblocks on the main highway south, soldiers sat at the ready behind antiaircraft guns positioned right in the middle of the road, as jets flew high overhead, out of sight.

Five soldiers were sitting on the porch of a two-story farmhouse just up the road, with bottles of beer at their feet. Military morale still looks strong, at least in this part of Kosovo.

At a heavily damaged military base on the edge of Belacevac, a town about 12 miles west of Pristina, three soldiers guarding the main gate were reclining in the sun.

The remnants of a small building destroyed in a NATO air raid were scattered across the ground behind them. There was also a large bomb crater in the earth covering one of two fortified bunkers. But the structures themselves appeared undamaged.

The town's Orthodox church had several holes in it where roof tiles had broken off and fallen away, perhaps from the shock waves from bombs exploding at the army base several hundred yards away.

At the height of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army's success last summer, there was a large KLA checkpoint in Belacevac. It isn't there anymore.

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