Milosevic assures EU delegation that Kosovo offensive `has come to a halt'


The Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, told an EU delegation yesterday that his government's offensive in Kosovo "has come to a halt," as diplomats urged ethnic Albanians to unite for talks with Belgrade.

Austrian diplomat Mr Albert Rohan, who headed the EU team visiting the region, said Mr Milosevic "assured us that the military operation has come to a halt". However, observers here doubt that government troops will completely halt all operations in the separatist province.

And a statement from the Yugoslav President's office, carried by the state news agency Tanjug, said that, during the talks, Mr Milosevic "stressed that . . . authorised bodies of Serbia and Yugoslavia are determined to stamp out any violence in Kosovo, as an evil that jeopardises peaceful and communal life". The EU delegation arrived in the region on Tuesday, in the midst of a new offensive by Serb forces against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Diplomats from Austria, Britain and Germany - present, past and future holders of the EU presidency - on Wednesday visited the central and western towns of Malisevo and Kijevo, both scenes of recent fighting.

"We were shocked with what we have seen. The area is partly devastated and there are hardly any civilians in the area, which has been damaged and destroyed, and there are scenes that show of excessive use of military force," Mr Rohan said.

Late on Tuesday, Serb police regained control of Malisevo, which had been a KLA stronghold, and this week have also been clearing key roads through the area.

The Serb-run information centre in Pristina said that yesterday Serb forces regained control on two roads leading from Malisevo to the west, forcing "groups of armed Albanians to flee".

In Pristina, EU diplomats said they were told that the KLA would support a joint platform of all Kosovo Albanian political forces for possible talks with Belgrade over the future of Kosovo.

The KLA has rejected the political leadership of the Kosovo Albanian leader, Mr Ibrahim Rugova, saying his peaceful policy has proved fruitless for the separatists' main goal, independence.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency UNHCR warned yesterday in Pristina of a "humanitarian disaster" in central Kosovo.

Ms Maki Shinohara, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade, said it believed people in the Malisevo area, including many children, were without essential supplies.

The biggest difficulty facing UN officials will be estimating the number of refugees, who are spread over several hundred square kilometres of heavily wooded and hilly terrain.

Ms Shinohara said the number of people displaced - put at 100,000 on Monday - "could have grown by more than 10,000".