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Thursday, March 5, 1998 Published at 23:43 GMT

World: Europe

More than 20 dead in Kosovo fighting

The BBC's Paul Woods gives an exclusive report for BBC 2's Newsnight (3' 27")
Serbian troops have launched a big operation against ethnic Albanians in the troubled province of Kosovo, killing at least 20 people.

A cluster of villages were said to have come under fire from tanks and helicopter gunships.

The operation came as the British foreign secretary was in Belgrade on behalf of the European Union to urge restraint.

[ image: Many died in weekend clashes]
Many died in weekend clashes
In a statement, the Serbian authorities said 20 ethnic Albanians and two Serb policemen were killed in the operation. Four other police officers were wounded.

They said the trouble started when separatists attacked a police patrol.

Reports have been surfacing throughout the day of a massive Serb operation against nationalist villages west of the provincial capital, Pristina.

This was the first government confirmation that it was an organised police operation.

The latest trouble follows clashes last weekend, when at least 25 ethnic Albanians were killed.

A number of villages targeted

First reports said security forces, including Yugoslav army troops and police with tanks, shelled the villages of Prekaz and Lausha in the southern Serbian province.

[ image: Mourning the dead]
Mourning the dead
According to reports, Serbian authorities have not previously used the army in operations against the Kosovo Liberation Army, a separatist guerrilla force which is seeking autonomy for the ethnic Albanian population.

Firing reportedly started in the early morning. Residents of Srbica, one of the main towns in the Drenica region with an Albanian population of 60,000, said houses were burning in Prekaz.

The assault appeared to be concentrated on the homes of two extended Albanian families, according to the Albanian-run Kosovo Information Centre.

Diplomatic moves underway

[ image: Serb forces: ready for action]
Serb forces: ready for action
The fighting erupted as British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who is representing the European Union, met the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

At the meeting Mr Cook called for greater autonomy for Kosovo and an end to the violence there. But he said he was not leaving Belgrade more hopeful than when he arrived.

The EU and the United States fear uncontrollable violence in Kosovo following the weekend killings. They inflamed nationalist anger among Albanians who make up 90% of the population of Kosovo.

President Milosevic has reportedly stationed police, armed with military equipment including Russian-built Hind attack helicopters, in Kosovo to contain Albanian resentment at the loss of the province's autonomous status in 1989.

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