Serbia + 1 more

West Corner of Kosovo tense after village battle

By Elly Biles

LODJA, Serbia, July 12 (Reuters) - The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) said on Sunday it lost two men in a fierce clash with Serbian security forces who attacked a guerrilla-held village near the western town of Pec.

The ethnic Albanian insurgents said they remained in control of the settlement.

Fighting took place within earshot of Pec, Kosovo's second largest town and the centre of a flashpoint where villages controlled by Serbs and ethnic Albanians are separated by only a few cornfields.

In a stretch of no-man's land between heavily defended Serbian and KLA barricades a few hundred metres (yards) apart, the road leading into Lodja was littered with the debris of war. Heavy-calibre machinegun shell cases were strewn about and cut-down tree branches were spread deliberately over the road, possibly concealing landmines.

KLA sentries fired warning shots over a Reuters Television vehicle, then approached and spoke with reporters. But they refused to permit any filming or photography.

"This is war and I don't trust my brother or my father or my mother, not even my wife," said a 30-year-old KLA commander summoned to the barricade by radio. The man refused to give his name but said he had returned to Kosovo from Finland to join the guerrilla liberation struggle.

Since emerging from obscurity late last year to begin a battle for the independence of the province from Serbia, the KLA has gained control of an estimated third of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 1.8 million population is ethnic Albanian.

Armed ethnic Albanian villagers at the barricade alongside uniformed KLA fighters said Saturday's attack had begun in the morning and lasted for three hours.

Serbian security forces attacked from three sides, using police armoured vehicles and army infantry. The two dead KLA fighters were killed by a mortar explosion, they said.

They said there had been action in the area for the past six days. All women and children had been evacuated to "liberated Kosovo" apart from a few women who remained to cook for the guerrillas.

Serbian sources in Pec, the last big town before the border with Albania, confirmed on Saturday that police had attacked the KLA-held village in a bid to find two policemen missing in a previous action.

They said they regained control of a road leading to a Serb village cut off by fighting but failed to find their missing men.

"We believe the Serbs were trying to get back the body of one of their policemen," a KLA guerrilla said.

According to the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Information Centre, the Serbs launched a Katyusha rocket attack on Lodja during the attack, in which they said one Albanian man died and three others were wounded.

The KLA fighters made no mention of a rocket attack. Their own weapons appeared to be mainly Kalashnikov automatic rifles and a bigger, drum-magazine machinegun. But the commander said the KLA brought in bigger weapons from time to time.

"We're on our own land and we're prepared to die for our land," one man said. Another, who said he lived in the village, reported that his house, two cars and a bar he owned had been destroyed.

Reporters were not permitted to enter Lodja to see the reported damage.

The road from Kosovo's capital Pristina to Pec was guarded by two dozen Serbian roadblocks. The town of Suva Reka appeared particularly tense. According to Albanian-language newspaper reports, three busloads of Serbian special police reinforcements arrived in Suva Reka a few days ago.

In a statement printed in an Albanian language newspaper on Sunday, the KLA portrayed itself as an organised and steadily advancing national liberation force, far more than spontaneous coalition of armed groups as hitherto believed.

Bidding to maintain the initiative and secure a central role in deciding the fate of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, the separatist guerrilla organisation denounced "divisive and defeatist" internal politics and said its military task must take precedence.

The United States, Russia and major European powers are trying to broker peace talks leading to self-determination for Kosovo, short of independence which they reject as a potentially catastrophic redrawing of borders in the volatile Balkans.

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Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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