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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Yugoslav Troops Said to Cross Into Albania

Border: Attack on village, which Belgrade denies, is the latest incident between the two countries.

April 14, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — In a significant escalation of tensions between the two Balkan neighbors, Albania on Tuesday charged that Yugoslav troops had violated its territory, shelling and burning homes in a remote border village before withdrawing.

Yugoslav officials denied the report, but international peace monitors in the border area said Yugoslav troops had entered the village of Kamenica and set part of it on fire before withdrawing after 1 1/2 hours.

Pier Ganggrigp, a monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said at least 50 Yugoslav soldiers penetrated about a third of a mile into Albania at 1 p.m., easily dispersing 10 Albanian border police with small-arms fire.

The incursion had been preceded by Yugoslav shelling of the area, he said, speaking to the BBC from Bajram Curri, near Kamenica.

Kamenica has been a staging area for infiltration into Kosovo of fighters from the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, and the Yugoslav incursion also was in an area where clashes between Yugoslavia and the KLA have been reported for the past three days. The incursion may have been in response to KLA activities in the area, an Albanian police source said.

Even before Tuesday's incident, relations between Albania and Yugoslavia had been strained.

Albania has watched in anger as Yugoslav army troops and police have forced more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo in recent weeks, including 300,000 to Albania itself. According to the refugees, the campaign has been accompanied by widespread rapes, robberies and killings committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Yugoslavia, meanwhile, has been angered by Albania's support for NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia and by its sheltering of the KLA. The guerrilla group is battling for independence for Kosovo, which is now a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

"These accusations are absolutely false. Yugoslav troops did not enter Albania," said Nebojsa Vujovic, a spokesman for the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry.

Although the reported incursion was the most serious on record, OSCE monitors have noted previous violations of the border by Yugoslav forces in recent weeks.

The border is lightly defended by Albanian border police who have "explicit orders" never to fire back at the Yugoslavs, the monitor said. The Albanians "don't seem to have any capability to defend anything," he added.

One KLA commander, interviewed in Krume in northern Albania on Monday, acknowledged that rebel forces have been crossing into Kosovo near Tropoje, a KLA stronghold, in recent days. He said that led to a firefight Friday in which at least seven KLA fighters were killed.

The officer, who refused to give his name, claimed that the KLA had captured three Yugoslav officers in the action and killed "many" Yugoslav troops.

Although Albania is not officially supporting the KLA's military activities, its backing for the rebels is apparent.

KLA forces move freely about northern Albania. On Monday, a convoy carrying at least 300 new KLA recruits was sighted in Krume, proceeding northward and riding in military trucks identical to those used by the Albanian army.

Meanwhile, nearly 5,000 additional ethnic Albanians entered Albania on Tuesday after being ordered by police to leave their homes in several villages near Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

The refugees, many of whom were from Hence near Pristina's airport, told of being stoned and shot at as they were driven for nearly 24 hours on a roundabout route toward the border crossing at Morine. Along the way, they said they passed burned and empty homes and dozens of police checkpoints.

According to refugees interviewed here, at least two women and a boy were killed en route to the border, and young, attractive women were pulled from the convoy by police apparently intent on raping them.

In one incident, a Serbian policeman scrutinized a wagon and focused his attentions on Shpresa Halimi, 22, of Klina. "How old?" he demanded, according to her brother-in-law, Arsim Halimi, who was in the same wagon.

The policeman pulled Shpresa Halimi out of the wagon and ordered the other refugees to get going. The terrified woman broke away from her captor and was trying to climb back into the moving wagon when the policeman opened fire with his machine gun, shooting her in the back and killing her, Arsim Halimi said.

Shpresa Halimi's husband of nine months was traveling in another wagon and did not learn until later that she had been killed.

"She was young and beautiful," said her husband, Rashim Halimi, 29, standing amid other refugees in Kukes on Tuesday as the news of his wife's death was still sinking in.

"She was a brave woman and she wanted to escape."

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