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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

20 Killed, 10 Wounded as NATO Targets Prison

Balkans: Facility was military barracks, alliance contends. Yugoslav guards say they thought airstrikes were a bid to free rebels.

May 22, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISTOK, Yugoslavia — Guards at a maximum-security prison here struggled to keep about 1,000 inmates under control Friday as NATO warplanes carried out several attacks on the facility. Yugoslav officials said the prisoners include separatist guerrilla commanders.

At least 19 inmates and guards were killed along with the prison's deputy warden, and at least 10 other people were wounded in the airstrikes in western Kosovo, authorities said.

"The prisoners are still inside the [yard] walls, but we cannot put them back into the cellblocks where they're supposed to be because NATO is hitting the buildings as well," warden Aleksandar Rakocevic told reporters Friday.

"Maybe some have already escaped because there are several holes in the walls," he added as nervous guards prepared to unlock the heavy steel door leading to the prison yard, where at least nine bodies lay scattered on the grass and in shrubs. All had shaved heads, indicating that they were inmates.

Although the Dubrava penitentiary is a modern prison complex that holds inmates serving time for various crimes--including "terrorism," as Yugoslav authorities label the actions of rebels from the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army--NATO spokesman Jamie Shea in Brussels said the site housed soldiers.

"That was a military barracks, and we attacked it twice," Shea said Friday evening. "That it was a military barracks we are sure of. Whether the Serbs were using it to house other people--that's a different thing."

About half an hour after Rakocevic spoke amid the rubble at the prison's main gate, the airstrikes resumed at 1:30 p.m. with at least two heavy blasts.

During two previous hours of attacks ending at 10:20 a.m., two blasts breached the high outer wall and left large craters on either side.

Angry Yugoslav guards, who were trying to keep inmates locked in the yard while under attack, said they thought that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes were attempting to spring scores of KLA fighters from jail.

At least 11 of Dubrava's inmates are KLA commanders. Dozens of other inmates were locked up after courts found them guilty of terrorism, prison authorities said.

NATO also bombed the prison compound Wednesday, according to Yugoslav officials, who said two inmates and two guards were killed in that attack.

Although the Yugoslav government insists that it has crushed the KLA, small cells continue to operate in several parts of the province, including the countryside around the Dubrava prison.

The region has been under intense NATO bombardment for several weeks as Yugoslav forces fight a ground war with KLA guerrillas trying to infiltrate the area from bases across the border in Albania.

Airstrikes on the prison damaged several cellblocks, the facility's hospital and school, and the Rudare Motel, built outside the front gate to house visitors. A large heating plant near the prison also was destroyed.

Explosions had shattered bulletproof prison windows, knocked heavy security doors off their hinges and blasted holes in the walls of several buildings in the compound.

Journalists allowed to visit the prison Friday found no evidence of military vehicles or equipment amid the rubble, although it was difficult to confirm what might have been at the site during the earlier attacks.

Hundreds of prisoners congregated in two groups in the prison yard. The largest crowd was at the farthest wall from the front gate, and several people in the group carried mattresses out of a cellblock.

Another group had moved closer to an inner wall near the spot where NATO bombs had destroyed the outer perimeter, and shouting guards wielding assault rifles tried to order them back.

At one damaged cellblock, a prisoner used a blanket to carry out a cellmate whose head was wrapped in a blood-soaked towel.

As the injured prisoner lay on the floor--shivering, moaning and apparently in shock--a guard pointed a handgun at him, in case he somehow managed to make a run for it. The guard also had a finger on the trigger of an assault rifle gripped tightly in his other hand.

"Help us, there are a lot of wounded back there," pleaded the other prisoner, whose jeans were smeared with blood.

The guard shouted back at him--something about "NATO fascists"--and the bleeding prisoner remained on the floor, his trembling fists tucked up under his chin.

While NATO airstrikes continued Friday in Kosovo, a 15-member team from United Nations humanitarian agencies traveled across the province on a mission to determine how to provide emergency relief.

The team is trying to determine whether its relief workers can operate safely and freely throughout Yugoslavia, but especially in Kosovo--a province of the Balkan nation's main republic, Serbia--to prepare for the return of several hundred thousand Kosovo Albanian refugees once the war ends.

Team members witnessed the return Friday of some internally displaced ethnic Albanians to the area around Urosevac, about 20 miles south of Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which pulled its 19 staffers out of Kosovo on March 29, five days after NATO began its air campaign, plans to resume operations in the province Monday.

Six aid workers will arrive in Pristina to handle logistics, communications and other technical matters in preparation to prepare for the arrival of four more staffers Thursday, the Red Cross said Friday in Geneva.

Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

All of Paul Watson's dispatches from Kosovo are available on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/dispatch.

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