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Serb Forces Retake Kosovo Mine

June 30, 1998

BELACEVAC, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Serb security forces recaptured a coal mine that provides power to Kosovo in a withering offensive against rebels Tuesday that sent thousands of villagers streaming into the woods west of the capital.

The Serb-led Yugoslav army and Serb police took the Belacevac open-pit mine near the end of a second day of pulverizing attacks on an area that the ethnic Albanians’ Kosovo Liberation Army had taken last week.

The mine is strategically important because it supplies coal to the nearby Obilic power plant, which provides electricity for most of Kosovo as well as to Macedonia and northern Greece during peak summer months.

Kosovo is in southern Serbia, the dominant of two republics making up what remains of Yugoslavia. The capital of Kosovo is Pristina.

With fighting spreading fast in Kosovo, human rights groups Tuesday accused both sides in the conflict of abuses, singling out the Serbs for alleged rapes and executions.

This week’s eruption of major clashes west of Pristina has dimmed chances of a diplomatic settlement to halt a steadily worsening conflict that threatens to engulf the region in war.

Throughout the day Tuesday, Serb tanks rolled up to the edge of a ridge overlooking Belacevac, fired into the village, then rapidly disappeared. Police snipers, cannons and mortars _ well-camouflaged in the lush green surrounding hills _ all fired on the KLA-held area.

After a bombardment that lasted for more than 24 hours, Serb forces finally retook the mine and villages around it after the KLA fled.

The Albanians’ Kosovo Information Center said earlier Tuesday that three Albanians were killed Monday in fighting around Belacevac. There was no immediate word on casualties from Tuesday’s clashes.

Journalists allowed into the area with the Serbs saw stray cattle wandering among burned-out cars and houses hit by small-arms fire and artillery. Police seized several KLA uniforms as well as rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.

Dozens of tractors leaving the area towed wagons packed with villagers, many of whom said they would spend the night in nearby woods. Several asked foreign reporters about the possibility of foreign help.

``Have you heard when NATO will come?″ asked 19-year-old Saban Gadeni, an economics student at the University of Kosovo.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy who has conducted a series of talks with both Yugoslav and ethnic Albanian officials, indicated in Oslo, Norway, that diplomatic efforts were stymied.

``One problem is that, on the military side, there is no clear Albanian chain of command with which to deal on talks about a cease-fire. This is a marked difference from Bosnia,″ said Holbrooke, who mediated the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war.

More than 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, have died in Kosovo since Serb security forces launched an offensive Feb. 28 to try to halt growing resistance to Serb rule. Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population.

In New York on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch blamed both sides _ but primarily the Serbs _ of war crimes and human rights violations. In a statement faxed to The Associated Press’ offices in the Balkans, the respected private watchdog group said it had ``powerful evidence″ that Serb police ``summarily executed″ an unspecified number of ethnic Albanians between February and May.

It also cited eyewitnesses reporting the rape of three women in the village of Ljubenic and said helicopters with Red Cross markings but apparently flown by Serbs fired on fleeing refugees on at least two occasions in early June.

The Kosovo Liberation Army was faulted for ``detentions and attacks on Serbian civilians.″

In a separate report, Amnesty International said civilians have been displaced, tortured and killed. About 70,000 people have fled their homes _ about 45,000 to other parts of Kosovo, 13,000 to the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, and another 13,000 to northern Albania.

The wife and mother of two Serbs kidnapped Monday by the KLA appealed for their release Tuesday. ``My 18-year-old son Ivan’s childhood was ruined by the war in Croatia where we lived, now his youth is ruined in Kosovo,″ said Vesna Bakrac. The men reportedly were taken off a bus by armed Albanians on Monday along with two other Serbs.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright again demanded Tuesday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdraw Serb special forces and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army.

``Milosevic is digging himself into a hole deeper and deeper in terms of increasing the level of violence, and the violence has to stop,″ she said in Shanghai, China, where she was accompanying President Clinton on a nine-day state visit.

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