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Sunday, August 1, 1999 Published at 19:54 GMT 20:54 UK

World: Europe

Serb villagers flee en masse

Villagers left on tractors piled high with their belongings

The entire Serb population from a Kosovo village joined a convoy of refugees heading for Serbia.

Serb villagers from Zitinje said they were fleeing the province because they no longer felt safe in their homes.

Kosovo: Special Report
US peacekeepers said the Serb villagers had been subject to a campaign of intimidation by their Kosovo Albanian neighbours.

The villagers joined a column of Serbs fleeing the province.

US helicopters and K-For peacekeepers escorted the Serb refugees north towards Serbia to give them a safe passage past jeering Kosovo Albanians.

K-For troops in armoured vehicles lined roads to prevent attacks on the 60-vehicle convoy by local Albanians who accused the Serbs of looting their homes during the Kosovo conflict.

Since the departure of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo in June, the province's Serb population has dropped from 150,000 to an estimated 30,000.

[ image: A tractor is seen through a destroyed mosque]
A tractor is seen through a destroyed mosque
US troops said Zitinje's Serbs had been the victims of several violent incidents and intimidation.

The most recent was on Friday when a grenade was thrown at a Serb property and a gunfight broke out.

But the act which prompted the exodus was a roadside ambush a week ago when a couple from the town were shot dead as they drove home at night.

Helicopters and tanks

US peacekeepers confined Kosovo Albanians in the area to their homes to prevent them attacking the convoy or looting and burning the deserted Serb homes.

A group of 10 Kosovo Albanians caught stealing from abandoned houses were reportedly detained. At least two of them had firearms on them.

[ image: US troops removed Serb goods left behind to prevent lootings]
US troops removed Serb goods left behind to prevent lootings
The fleeing Serb refugees were escorted north by a platoon of US soldiers in tanks, armoured combat vehicles and all-terrain jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns.

Overhead, two helicopters watched the convoy's procession.

Soldiers with automatic weapons kept back Kosovo Albanians who gathered on the roadside in the village of Radivojce after receiving word of the convoy.

"We're waiting here to see if the things they looted from our homes after we were kicked out by paramilitary thugs during the war will pass by our very eyes," said one farmer Daut Devaja.

Stones and abuse

When the convoy rolled in, the crowd chanted "UCK, UCK!" the acronym for the Kosovo Liberation Army. Others shouted, "Go to Serbia. It's where you belong!"

Some hurled the odd stone, but the soldiers prevented any more serious violence.

"I didn't expect we'd have to act like riot police here,'' said one peacekeeper, Second Lieutenant Robert Kimmel. ''The Albanians forget that Serbs are people too. It's really sad here."

Belgrade has repeatedly accused Nato of failing to protect Kosovo's dwindling Serb community.

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