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Crisis in Yugoslavia

At Least 53 Refugees Die in Kosovo Air Raid

Balkans: NATO launches probe to determine if it was responsible for the attack on ethnic Albanians. Another 61 were injured.

May 16, 1999|PAUL WATSON and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KORISA, Yugoslavia — At least 53 Kosovo Albanian refugees, a number of them children, were killed here when their roadside camp was bombed late Thursday in an area that had been under intense NATO airstrikes for days.

Alliance officials said they were investigating whether NATO warplanes were responsible for the attack, which injured 61 Kosovo Albanians. Several survivors said 100 or more people might have died in the bombing.

Charred bomb fragments, such as an aluminum fin, found at the scene resembled those left behind after previous North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes in Kosovo.

The bombing came on the heaviest night yet of NATO air raids on Yugoslavia.

Many of the refugees in Korisa were asleep when explosions sprayed shrapnel and flames everywhere, survivors said. Mattresses left behind in covered wagons and in the dirt underneath were soaked with blood.

At least a dozen children were among the dead. An infant buttoned up in terry cloth sleepers lay among the corpses that filled the local morgue.

Another child was incinerated in the fire that swept through the camp. The child's carbonized body was still lying on the ground Friday morning, beside that of an adult, in the middle of a tangle of farmers' tractors and wagons that were still burning 12 hours after the attack.

Survivors said about 430 Kosovo refugees had camped out for the night in a lot while 200 others slept in a nearby motel. The refugees had come out of the mountain woods, where they had been hiding for a month until they began to run out of food.

The ethnic Albanians did not say why they had fled their villages in the first place. They blamed "the situation," without accusing either Yugoslav security forces, NATO's bombing or both for driving them from their homes.

What mattered to the refugees was that they had gained official permission earlier Thursday to return to their homes in and around Korisa, said survivor Hasan Ahmetaj, 55.

"We were out there [hiding] for four weeks, and we didn't have much left to eat," he said through a translator. "So we talked to the police commander in [nearby] Ljubizda. He told us: 'Sure, you can come, and we will talk. You can go back to your houses if you want or you can go to Albania.'

"But he said, 'If you want to cross into Albania, you cannot because the border is closed, so it would be better if you returned to your houses.' "

Ahmetaj's wife and two daughters suffered leg and arm injuries and were among the patients Friday at a hospital in the city of Prizren, about three miles south of Korisa.

So many of the refugees were forced to camp out for the night while organizing their return because many homes in their villages had been destroyed, said Zecir Urimeraj, 62.

Urimeraj was asleep in his tractor wagon, while most of his relatives were in the motel, when the first bomb or missile fell. As he ran toward the motel, a second explosion changed his mind and he fled toward a field instead.

When Urimeraj returned Friday morning, he found the bodies of three family members among the dead.

The lot was a horrific mess of twisted metal and pieces of flesh scattered among bread rolls, macaroni, plates and clothes that had spilled out of cartons and suitcases.

Only half a dozen tractors and wagons farthest from the blasts were still intact, but some of the people sheltering inside couldn't escape the jagged pieces of shrapnel that flew in every direction.

Several survivors said in interviews that they heard five explosions during the airstrike and that, even as people fled into the fields on the other side of a two-lane road, the bombs kept falling.

Of the 61 wounded victims in Prizren's hospital, most had fractured limbs and spines and suffered second- and third-degree burns, said Dr. Dragan Soutic, the hospital's director.

If NATO eventually is found responsible for the attack at Korisa, it would be among the alliance's worst errant bombings yet in terms of civilians killed.

The attack came on its busiest night of airstrikes, including particularly heavy raids around the town of Prizren early Thursday and around Stimlje, about 20 miles northeast, at night.

NATO originally intended Friday to use its usual 3 p.m. news briefing in Brussels to describe atrocities that the alliance alleges are being carried out by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's soldiers, police and paramilitary forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.

Instead, alliance spokesmen were harried with questions about NATO's own actions.

"NATO does not target civilians. Let's be perfectly clear about that," alliance spokesman Jamie Shea said.

At the State Department, a spokesman suggested that Yugoslav forces might have been responsible.

"We do not know what damage may or may not have been caused by NATO aircraft operating in this area," said spokesman James P. Rubin. "It's an area where there was Serb shelling, and in the general area there was substantial NATO activity."

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