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Sunday, May 23, 1999 Published at 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK

World: Europe

Hundreds walk to freedom

The emotion was clear on the men's faces

More than 500 Kosovo-Albanian men have crossed the border into Albania after unexpectedly being released from prison by the Serbs - raising hopes that thousands more may still be alive.

Kosovo: Special Report
The released men, mostly aged between 20 and 60, said they were among a group of about 2,000 who had been set free and driven in buses to within a few kilometres of the border.

Across Yugoslavia, there was another night of heavy bombing, causing widespread power cuts. Serb forces in Kosovo have also been under sustained attack.

The men from Kosovo, many of whom were still in handcuffs, described how they had been rounded up by Serb forces while travelling in a refugee column towards the Albanian border.

Harrowing ordeals

Some had been detained at a school; others in a prison near the town of Mitrovica. They said they were packed into crowded cells, where they had to survive on starvation rations and were frequently beaten.

Clive Myrie: The men came in their hundreds
"When the Serbs grabbed me, they said I was a terrorist," said Sulejman Pec, 24.

"Today when they released me, they said: 'You are looking for Nato, so go find them'."

Robert Colville, of the UN refugee agency said: "They were in a very pitiful condition. I've never seen anything like it. I saw dozens crying."

Since Nato began its air campaign two months ago, an estimated 100,000 ethnic Albanian men have been rounded up by the Serbian army, and there has been speculation that they were being held as human shields, used as forced labour, or had been killed.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Albania: "Some said they had been beaten."
Women refugees crossing the border have repeatedly said that Serb forces separated the men, but their fate was unknown.

Heavy bombing continues

Yugoslavia was subjected to another night of heavy Nato bombing, with large areas of Serbia plunged into darkness after the power plant at Obrenovac was hit.

Nato says the continuing favourable weather also allowed its planes to carry out a wide range of attacks on Serb forces in Kosovo.

It said they had hit three parked aircraft, two missile transporters and a number of other military vehicles.

Serb media reports said that Nato had used graphite bombs to hit many parts of the power network.

The BBC's Mike Williams, who is in Belgrade, says the attacks appear to have grown in intensity over the last 48 hours.

KLA position bombed

The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army has forgiven Nato for bombing a KLA camp in Kosovo, killing seven of his fighters.

On Saturday, Nato admitted bombing the position by mistake in raids against Yugoslavia.

It thought the strategic hilltop position in Kosare, near the Albanian border, was still held by the Yugoslav Army.

(Click here to see a map of the most recent Nato strikes)

As the bombing continued, the US stressed that its calls for a larger peacekeeping force for Kosovo did not mean it supported an armed invasion.

At his daily briefing, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said the plan was to have peacekeepers in the region to get refugees home as soon as possible, but only after a peace agreement had been reached.

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Meanwhile, attempts to end the Kosovo conflict through diplomacy have been continuing.

Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who has had a succession of meetings over the past two weeks with the Russian Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, briefed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on his talks.

The talks have been based on a peace proposal outlined this month by the world's seven most developed industrial nations and Russia, taht foresees a strong internationall peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Western countries are insisting the force should be Nato-led, but Russia has not publicly accepted Nato leadership.

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