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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK

Families flee as historic town burned

Pec refugees waiting on a truck to clear the Montenegrin border

Kosovo's second largest town, Pec, in the west of the province, was once a peaceful place, seated at the foot of towering mountains in a landscape which appears to have been untouched for hundreds of years.

It commands spectacular views over the mouth of a gorge, where a mountain pass leads to Montenegro.

Kosovo: Special Report
Several kilometres away, a group of old Orthodox Serbian churches symbolise the rich religious heritage of the area.

The Patriarchate, as they are called, was once the seat of the Orthodox Serb Church, endowing the area with great significance for Serbs.

But this historic town with a population of at least 100,000 has come under heavy attack, parts of it reduced to burnt ruins, and emptied of people, according to accounts from fleeing refugees.

[ image: The monastery in Pec dates back to the 13th century]
The monastery in Pec dates back to the 13th century
Until this week, the vast majority of the population of Pec was Albanian. Serbs were a tiny minority.

Now, people who have fled from Pec across Kosovo's borders say large areas have been turned into little more than a ghost town.

The picture pieced together from their reports, of horrific brutality and of ethnic cleansing on a large scale, is a consistent one.

Balkan affairs expert Tim Judah says the atrocities follow an increase in tension in Pec: "Over the past year there has been a terrible atmosphere. There have already been attacks in cafes, for example. A group of young Serbian men were shot in a bar."

He said the significance of the place was due to the Orthodox church being based there throughout the time of the Ottoman empire.

Serb offensive

Refugees sheltering in a sports centre in Tirana - some in tears - told, in tones of despair, how they were driven away, many separated from loved ones.

They said the Serb offensive on their town began the day after the Nato announcement of air strikes.

[ image: A man from Pec pushes an elderly woman in a wheelbarrow as they flee]
A man from Pec pushes an elderly woman in a wheelbarrow as they flee
Older Albanian homes were shelled and torched, they said, while high-rise blocks of flats were looted and burnt.

The old Turkish quarter, with ancient features, quaint shops and hotels, had been wrecked, they said.

A mother-of-seven told how Serb soldiers and police had burst into a Catholic church, forcing out at gunpoint about 500 refugees seeking sanctuary.

She said that for three nights, as rumours of police burning homes had started, her family hid in the cellar - until the police found them and rounded them up.

They escaped once and went to the church - but were caught again. Together with a group of nuns, the crowd of refugees were put on a lorry, with no view of where they were being taken.

She was one of the hundreds of homeless gathered in the Tirana sports centre.

Thousands rounded up

One man told how his two sisters and his daughter had been taken away in a vehicle when Serb police raided his home.

"For about four days they shelled our area," he said. "I sent my family away to a safer place in another part of town and slept in the cellar to try to protect the house."

On Sunday, police arrived and maltreated him, at one point holding a rifle to his head. He was then forced to join a crowd awaiting deportation.

Estimates put the numbers gathered in the town square at between 40,000 and 50,000. They were forced to wait there several hours while more people arrived.

Families became separated as women and children piled into relatives' private cars to escape. Hundreds of others were forced into lorries and herded away.

[ image: A woman weeps after leaving her home behind]
A woman weeps after leaving her home behind
Nato spokesman Jamie Shea confirmed that Pec had been "almost totally destroyed" as people were sent away.

He said: "In many cases they have been provided with food and transport, demonstrating clearly that all of this has been planned in advance."

Fresh reports say that Nato bombings have now stretched to that area.

Earlier, Albanian television said that at least 1,000 people were heading for Albania, under the threat of gunfire from Serb soldiers.

Nato accused

The Kosovo Albanian Kosovapress news agency reported: "Many outskirts of this city are completely burnt, by Serbian barbarism.

"These bands of assassins in Peja (Pec) are led by a Serbian police officer, called Shanipuri.

[ image: A stream of families leave Pec, heading for the Montenegro border]
A stream of families leave Pec, heading for the Montenegro border
"This criminal together with his band, has executed many Albanians in the presence of their family.

"To one family with the surname Nikqi, this terrorist band, after killing first the father and the son, they have asked from his mother DM10,000 as compensation to save her 16-year-old daughter."

But in an email to the BBC apparently from Pec, Nato air attacks have been blamed for much of the destruction.

A BBC News Online user using only the name Dijana wrote: "Nato is a killing machine. They kill a lot of innocent civilians.

"My house in Pec is 200 years old, and Nato bombers destroyed it yesterday. "Western democracy" takes care of Albanians, but they don't worry about 800,000 Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia. My people want to live in peace with all nations in world."

As families were forced to leave and buildings went up in flames, there were several reports of looting.

The humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders said stocks of equipment in warehouses had been taken.

Kosovapress also reported that the town of Orlate on the road between Pristina and Pec was in flames after coming under attack from Serb forces using dozens of tanks.

Air strikes spread

The agency also reported fierce fighting between the KLA and Serb forces in Decani, near Pec.

There was no independent confirmation of the reports, since most journalists and all ceasefire monitors have left.

Nato aircraft attacked targets around Pec on Wednesday but there were no reports of casualties, the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported.

"The aviation of the Nato criminals bombed Pec at about 1130 (1030BST) today. According to the first information, two bombs have fallen in the vicinity of the village of Belo Polje, which is exclusively populated by Serbs," the agency said.

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