Serbs Flee as Refugees Stream Home

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Both sides of Kosovo's ethnic divide ignored NATO pleas for restraint Friday as revenge attacks prompt more panicky Serbs to flee the province and ethnic Albanian refugees flooded home in numbers that startle international aid officials.

About 48,000 ethnic Albanians returned on Thursday alone, said Paula Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That brought to more than 300,000 the number who have flooded back into the province in the past 10 days.

"This is one of the largest spontaneous returns that we have ever seen in the last 25 years of any operation,'' she said in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

She said there were signs Friday's wave of arrivals could be even larger. The 48,000 the previous day was the highest number for any day since NATO troops started arriving and Serbian troops began pulling out two weeks ago.

In Belgrade, Serbian officials and representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church complained that Kosovo's border with Albania is completely open and that many Albanian citizens are entering Kosovo together with the returning refugees, media reported Friday.

The daily Danas quoted Bishop Amfilohije of the Serbian Orthodox Church as accusing international peacekeepers of allowing Kosovo rebels back in and to take control of the entire province.

About 860,000 ethnic Albanians were reported to have fled or been expelled from Kosovo since shortly before NATO launched a bombing campaign March 24. The bombing was intended to force Yugoslavia to accept a peace plan for the province.

UN officials have tried in vain to persuade refugees to delay their returns until mines can be cleared and better arrangements for food and shelter organized. Many are coming home to little more than burned-out shells of houses.

The flood also is likely to complicate NATO's struggle to cope with outbreaks of lawlessness, especially where Albanians come into contact with Serbs.

Despite NATO's appeals, ethnic Albanians torched Serbian houses in the western Kosovo town of Pec on Thursday and looted Serb-owned shops in Pristina. On Friday, NATO issued a new plea for calm.

"The situation in Kosovo will remain tense in the near future. You have to expect that,'' said Major Jan Joosten, a NATO spokesman. "The citizens of Kosovo must exercise restraint.''

More panicky Serbs fled Pec on Friday, accusing ethnic Albanians of chasing them out of town. Italian NATO troops in charge of the area patrolled the city, looking for Serb stragglers who might need help.

Some of about 300 Serbs who took shelter at a monastery also were trying to leave, despite efforts of church leaders to persuade them to stay. The exodus left Pec, an important center of Serbian Orthodoxy, nearly empty of Serbs.

There were 14 murders in Pristina on Thursday, NATO spokesmen said. There was no immediate breakdown on victims, but most incidents were connected to ethnic tensions, they said.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was trying to retain government power to crack down on dissent. The parliament lifted a state of war imposed after NATO began bombing, but it was to take up new measures Friday to keep some wartime controls in place.

Milosevic's autocratic rule has been shaken by the Kosovo conflict, in which Serb-led Yugoslavia sustained heavy bombing damage and was forced to agree to withdraw troops from Kosovo and allow a NATO-led force to enter.

During NATO's air war, Albanians fleeing the province spoke of Serbs looting Albanian-owned homes and businesses. Now the tables are being turned.

One Serb from Pec, Gavrilo Gojkovic, said Kosovo Liberation Army rebels pushed him from his home with guns and a knife at his back. He said the KLA fighters told him: "This is Kosovo. You have no place here now.''