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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebels Take Hold as Departing Serbs Rampage

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Hundreds of Kosovo rebels came out of hiding Tuesday as Serbian police evacuated the province, ransacking offices and torching buildings as they left.

Hundreds of Yugoslav tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers and police cars, accompanied by private vehicles of Serb civilians, headed north from Pristina and other towns according to a timetable set down in the international peace plan aimed at restoring peace to this battered Serbian province.

Troops riding atop the vehicles flashed the three-fingered Serbian salute at Western television crews as they sped by. Interspersed among the military vehicles were civilian cars, most of them towing trailers loaded with household goods. A couple of tractor-trailers were hauling cattle.

On their way, peacekeepers saw Serbs torching buildings of ethnic Albanians. Houses in the village of Donje Ljubce, eight kilometers north of Pristina, were on fire. Serbian soldiers carrying gasoline jerrycans moved through the village as it burned. Serbian crosses marked some of the buildings.

Serbian police were supposed to vacate their headquarters complex in central Pristina by midnight local time (2 a.m. Wednesday in Moscow). By early Tuesday, they had moved out of three of the four buildings.

Captain Martin Lambert-Gorwyn, an officer in charge, said NATO troops had gotten a "very hostile reception." Departing Serbs had vandalized buildings, smashing electrical fixtures, blocking up toilets, breaking doors and leaving piles of burned documents and rubble.

But Lieutenant Colonel Robin Clifford, a spokesman for the allied force, said: "We have every indication that the deadline of midnight tonight will be met."

He said 20,000 Yugoslav personnel had left Kosovo or were on the move as of Monday night, which he said accounted for about half of the total.

Serbs continued to pour out of the province out of fear that the departure of Yugoslav forces will expose them to vendettas and reprisal killings by the ethnic Albanian majority seeking revenge for atrocities committed against them during the 15-month war.

Underscoring those fears, guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, have been moving into key areas of the province as NATO tries to expand control and fill the security vacuum left by the departing Serbian forces.

On Tuesday, hundreds of KLA fighters streamed out of the mountains of central Kosovo in the Drenica region west of Pristina and began erecting shelters from plastic sheeting in destroyed villages.

Armed KLA fighters were also reported moving into ethnic Albanian neighborhoods of Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city. Serbian reporters said KLA members, wearing civilian clothes but with KLA shoulder patches on their shirts, milled around in the center of Pristina, stopping pedestrians and demanding identification.

The Serb-run Media Center in Pristina reported that KLA fighters attacked Serbian villagers 20 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital. The center said several people were wounded. The report could not be independently confirmed.

United Nations spokeswoman Susan Manuel said the organization was creating a team to run an interim government for Kosovo until conditions are right "for the people of Kosovo to enjoy autonomy."

In Belgrade, the highest body of the Serbian Orthodox Church - the Holy Synod - joined a growing chorus of dissent and urged President Slobodan Milosevic to quit just as the Yugoslav leader made his first speech in years showing signs of moderation.

"We demand that the federal president and his government resign in the interest and the salvation of the people so that new officials acceptable at home and abroad can take responsibility for the people and their future as a National Salvation government," the Holy Synod said in a statement published by the independent news agency Beta.

"Every sensible person has to realize that numerous internal problems and ... the isolation of our country on the international scene cannot be solved or overcome with this kind of government and under the present circumstances," the church's statement said.

The Orthodox Church is one of the most influential voices calling for the departure of Milosevic, who has been indicted as a war criminal for his role in alleged atrocities in Kosovo.

The opposition Alliance for Change, an umbrella group encompassing opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, has already urged the 58-year-old strongman, who has dominated Yugoslav politics since 1987, to quit.

Zoran Djindjic, the head of the main opposition Democratic Party, applauded the church's statement, saying it was important to reach a consensus on the need for Milosevic's resignation.

"That is the right church reaction, which proves that it's clear to everybody that there is no future with Milosevic," Djindjic said by telephone from Montenegro, where he fled after the Serbian media accused him of treason. Moderate opposition leader Vuk Draskovic said Tuesday that Milosevic should limit himself to the ceremonial role envisaged for the head of state by the federal constitution.

"The president is a nominal president with less power than the British queen," said Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement.

Just as the calls for Milosevic's resignation grow louder, the normally reclusive leader appeared in public for the second time in as many days and showed signs of moderation.

For the first time in years he spoke of Serbia's reconciliation with the world.

The man who once dreamed of carving a mini-empire for all Serbs out of the battle-scarred Balkans said it was important to correct the world's image of Yugoslavia - a federation that has lost four of its republics during Milosevic's reign.

"[I hope] that our country never again experiences another war, that our country can be developed, happy and free ... because peace and freedom and democracy cannot be separated," he told residents of Aleksinac, a central Serbian town that was devastated in April by NATO bombs that went astray.

In speeches that made him look like he was on the campaign trail, Milosevic told crowds in Aleksinac and in the much-bombed city of Novi Sad on Monday that the government was pushing ahead with reconstruction and would work hard to rebuild the country as soon as possible.

The Serbian Orthodox Church endorsed pro-democracy protests by the opposition Zajedno movement in early 1997 after Milosevic canceled the results of municipal elections won by the opposition. He eventually backed down.

More recently, the head of the church in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, called on Milosevic in February to introduce democracy in Serbia. But the Holy Synod warned the international community against bombing Yugoslavia after peace talks failed in March.