Animals take over village that changed hands twice

 

Cattle and horses wandered the main street of Belacevac village yesterday past trenches abandoned without a fight by Albanian Kosovo guerrillas. We entered Belacevac, six miles west of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, to find it a ghost town after the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) pulled out when Serbian forces recaptured a nearby coal mine.

KLA guerrillas occupied the open-cast mine and several adjacent villages last week in the boldest move of an uprising which has taken nominal control of more than a third of the southern Serbian province since February.

A solitary car was parked next to the Belacevac railway station and there was no sign that any fighting had occurred in the village. Neither KLA fighters nor Serbian security forces could be seen.

The entrance to Belacevac mine was unguarded and the open-topped jeep which Muja, the KLA local commander who took control of the mine last week, had been using for his daylight patrols was abandoned nearby.

"KLA" signs in red paint on bus stops, mine buildings and guard huts at abandoned checkpoints were all that remained of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force.

Serbian police armoured personnel carriers were positioned on the south-east rim of the mine, high ground that gave their guns command of the entire area.

None of the heavy equipment in the mine was operating in the late afternoon, and the conveyor belt that moves lignite coal from the pit to two nearby electric generating plants in Obilic was silent too.

Snipers, apparently KLA, fired on journalists from a hillside west of Grabovac, a nearby village where a few ethnic Albanian civilians were hiding in their houses.

"The last of the KLA fighters withdrew from this area at 11 p.m. last night because they didn't have a chance against the Serbs," said Naim Berisha (37) from behind the safety of his walled compound in Grabovac.

"All the women and children and fighters have left the villages. There are only civilians, men like me, left here trying to hold on to our houses. We expect the Serbs to come soon and then we will have to run away too."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Albanian residents of the Belacevac area fled in recent days, heading west through the hills to Drenica, a separatist stronghold controlled by the KLA but surrounded by Serbian security forces.

Farther to the north-east the village of Ade showed that it had been the main battlefield between the KLA and Serbian police, Yugoslav army and Serb civilian units on Monday and Tuesday.

Some houses had been damaged by fire and many were pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel. A KLA-slit trench lay abandoned.

Reporters taken on a tour of Ade yesterday morning by Serbian authorities were shown a few weapons that purportedly had belonged to the insurgents.

Western observers fear that Belacevac could be the first step in a Serbian counter-offensive against recent KLA gains, and that fighting could surge out of control, perhaps dragging neighbouring Albania and Macedonia into the fray.

The main east-west highway between Pristina and Pec has been closed for nearly eight weeks by KLA attacks and barricades. Traffic on all highways west and south of Pristina is now subject to ambush by insurgent forces.

The village of Kijevo, on the Pristina-Pec highway about 40km (25 miles) west of the capital, is surrounded by KLA forces. About two dozen Serbian police and as many as 200 Serb civilians are believed to be trapped there.

The US special envoy, Mr Richard Holbrooke, has called Kijevo "the most dangerous place in Europe" because any government effort to open the road and relieve the village could bring a serious escalation in the fighting.