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A resurgence of Kosovar refugees

More than 20,000 have fled Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, sinceFriday.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 1999



KUKES, ALBANIA

Kosovo's most diverse city - a place shared for centuries by ethnic Albanians, Serbs, ethnic Turks, Muslim Slavs, and others - may not be for much longer.

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Largely spared since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, Prizren is now in the cross hairs of the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" that has swept Kosovo over the past six weeks.

More than 20,000 ethnic Albanians from the Prizren area have fled since Friday in the third major refugee wave to wash into Albania. In all, more than 380,000 refugees have overwhelmed Europe's poorest state and further strained international aid efforts.

But instead of putting Prizren to the torch, as they have done to countless towns and villages elsewhere, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's commanders appear to have other plans for the city. Refugees say it is being turned into a veritable fortress shielded by a still large ethnic Albanian civilian population.

Huge numbers of troops, police, and paramilitary gangs have moved into schools and the homes of expelled ethnic Albanians, refugees say. Armored vehicles and ammunition stocks are being stashed in factories and around public buildings. Ammunition crates are also stored under camouflage netting on side streets, as are military and commandeered civilian trucks holding fuel and other supplies.

The strategy appears to have two aims. The first is hiding Serbian forces, their equipment, and supplies from NATO satellites, spy planes, and airstrikes. Fuel has become especially critical with the imposition of a petroleum embargo on Yugoslavia by the European Union, which took effect Friday. In addition, President Clinton imposed Friday an embargo on Serbia that bars US exports of oil.

The second apparent aim is preparing for a possible NATO ground invasion from Albania. Refugees report seeing large groups of young ethnic Albanian men, who had been rounded up, digging trench lines in several areas between Prizren and the Albanian border.

"We saw them as we came here. They were wearing green coveralls," says Bekim Samariti, after crossing the Albanian border with his pregnant wife.

Though they can't be independently confirmed, refugee interviews provide frightening snapshots of the days leading up to the exodus that began April 30 from Kosovo's second-largest city.

While none report the kinds of atrocities allegedly committed elsewhere in Kosovo, refugees describe a place of dread, where armed Serbian civilians cruise in cars without license plates and hundreds of young ethnic Albanian men have been taken from their families. Only the elderly venture from their homes to look for food. But all ethnic Albanian-owned shops were looted at the start of the war, refugees say, and the few open stores are run by Serbs who refuse to sell to ethnic Albanians.

"You can't find milk, bread, or anything else because they are selling only to Serbs," says Fazi Kalendari. "Serbs are moving freely in the city. But we Albanians and those who are not Serbian are oppressed. I made a place beneath my roof to hide to escape from the police. Sometimes, they don't look in the roof."