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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Border With Albania Is 3-Way Battleground

Balkans: Steady thump of artillery and bombs marks fighting by Yugoslav forces, NATO jets and separatists.

April 30, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARAULA DEVA, Yugoslavia — A few minutes after the faintest sound of jets was heard, Yugoslav artillery fell silent along the Albanian border. Then the airstrikes began.

The NATO bombings usually don't last more than an hour, though. And as the roar from fighter-bombers trailed off beyond the mountains, the Yugoslav artillery opened up again with a heavy whumpf.

It's all part of the three-way game of hide-and-seek by Yugoslav forces, NATO jets and the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, guerrillas who are trying to fight their way across the Albanian border into their homeland.

The battles went on throughout the day here Thursday, the steady thump of artillery and bombs broken by brief interludes when the only sound came from songbirds in a meadow.

The heaviest bombing attacks were concentrated in the area around the Yugoslav village of Morina, just across the border from the Albanian town of Tropoje, which has long been known as one of the KLA's main bases outside Kosovo.

About seven miles southeast of Morina, here at Karaula Deva, Yugoslav soldiers appeared relaxed and in high spirits at a small hillside border post complete with a satellite television dish, an outdoor basketball court and a small orchard.

Although the soldiers complained that they can't get enough cigarettes, they had such other comforts as fresh-baked bread. More important, there were no obvious signs of any rebel attacks here.

"It's difficult terrain," said Sgt. Bosko Cvetkovic, 37, pointing behind the border post to a line of grassy hilltops that reach a height of about 3,000 feet.

"If they wanted to enter our territory here, they would have to come up over those hills and they would be easy targets," he said. "They're trying to find some easier terrain."

The Yugoslav army brought a small group of journalists from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to the border post Thursday to disprove recent reports that the KLA had seized the site.

Journalists weren't allowed to get any closer to the border clashes around Morina. But North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes--and the smoke rising from their targets--were easy to see in the distance on a clear spring day.

After more than an hour of shelling what were said to be rebel targets along the border, the Yugoslav artillery--which fire four rounds a minute at their peak--fell silent just after noon with the sound of approaching NATO jets.

Within 20 minutes there were several plumes of black smoke rising from Yugoslav villages close to the border and from the outskirts of Djakovica, a nearby town.

Two black NATO warplanes, apparently searching for more targets, circled overhead until about 12:50 p.m., when they flew away. At 1:10 p.m. the Yugoslav artillery gunners were back at work.

It went on like that all afternoon, while children in shanties on the edge of Djakovica played a game of spot-the-NATO-plane. There was no sign that the bombing had Yugoslav forces on the run.

"They're trying to find artillery and armor, but they haven't had any success," said Vladimir Pejic, 21, a Yugoslav army soldier posted here two months ago.

On the rocky track up to the border post, it was plain to see why NATO pilots might have trouble hitting their intended targets. Troops had one artillery piece hidden in the backyard of a house.

To NATO, that is a despicable use of civilian buildings as military cover. But to Yugoslav soldiers, it is the only way they can fight superior air power and a regrouping guerrilla force at the same time.

When NATO began airstrikes against Yugoslavia on March 24, the alliance's main aim was to get President Slobodan Milosevic to sign a peace deal for Kosovo that would have put 28,000 peacekeepers in the province, which is part of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia.

During more than five weeks of NATO airstrikes, Yugoslav forces and paramilitary units in Kosovo have emptied vast areas in the province of its ethnic Albanian majority and overrun all seven of the KLA's regional headquarters.

The only significant fighting on the ground now is along the Kosovo portion of Yugoslavia's border with Albania, where both warring sides accuse each other of launching artillery or rocket attacks.

NATO and the Albanian government call Yugoslav troops the aggressors and accuse them of trying to provoke a wider conflict by shelling Albanian territory and even making brief incursions across the border.

Milosevic's regime insists that its forces are fighting a defensive battle against KLA guerrillas in Albania who want to move fighters and weapons back into Kosovo.

So Yugoslav forces see NATO as the KLA's air force. Although NATO officials have repeatedly said they don't have any direct links with the guerrillas, the alliance is at least cheering the KLA on from the sidelines.

"Like a phoenix which rises from the ashes, the Kosovo Liberation Army is able to mount a number of attacks still inside Kosovo," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told reporters at a daily briefing in Brussels on April 16.

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