Tide of refugees swells as ethnic purge intensifies

By George Jahn Associated Press Published:

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia _ NATO air raids destroyed another key bridge over the Danube, Serbian television reported Saturday, as Italian troops prepared to go to Albania to aid refugees pouring out of Kosovo in catastrophic numbers.

President Slobodan Milosevic's forces have purged Kosovo of 300,000 ethnic Albanians so far, with perhaps an equal number soon to follow. The sea of misery threatened to destabilize neighboring states, already struggling to provide the refugees with basic necessities such as food, water and shelter.

Serbian television reported that NATO airstrikes on Saturday had destroyed the Freedom Bridge at Novi Sad, Serbia's second-largest city. The span is a major artery between the capital of Belgrade and Yugoslavia's northern agricultural and industrial region.

The independent Beta news agency said seven persons on the bridge were injured in the strike, some seriously. Another independent agency, FoNet, reported that the attack left Novi Sad without water.

The bridge is the second highway bridge in Novi Sad destroyed this week. NATO missiles knocked out a key bridge in the city on Thursday, blocking traffic on the waterway. Saturday's attack leaves only a railroad bridge in the city of 500,000.

NATO said earlier Saturday that its forces had demolished a highway bridge farther downstream, cutting a major road link between Belgrade and Hungary.

NATO Air Commodore David Wilby said earlier that alliance forces were targeting communications and transport links in their escalating campaign to force Milosevic to capitulate and stop his offensive in Kosovo.

The latest assault on Yugoslavia's infrastructure followed NATO's first attack in the heart of Belgrade, where cruise missiles left the federal interior ministry and Serbian police headquarters in ruins.

Enraged residents of the capital cursed NATO on Saturday, comparing the attack to the Nazi bombing of Belgrade on Easter weekend in 1941.

"They hate the Serbs. It's a disgrace," spat 75-year-old Dusana Bogdanovic.

The alliance launched air attacks on March 24 to try to force the Yugoslav leader to accept a peace plan for the southern Serbian province that would include NATO peacekeeping troops on the ground.

Since then, the campaign by Yugoslav security forces to rid Kosovo of ethnic Albanians has overwhelmed Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro with refugees.

A valley between the borders of Yugoslavia and Macedonia overflowed Saturday with more than 65,000 ethnic Albanians, prompting the Macedonian government to say it can't accept any more refugees without guarantees they can be transferred to European countries or regional states.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said his country would accept some Kosovo refugees and would talk with other European Union members about doing the same.

NATO decided Saturday to send Italian troops to Albania to protect a humanitarian relief effort for more than 100,000 refugees there.

Alliance officials did not specify the size of the Albania deployment, but a diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number being mentioned was about 6,000.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said 290,000 ethnic Albanians have been expelled from Kosovo in the past 10 days and estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 more were heading toward the Serbian province's borders with Albania and Macedonia.

At the current rate, he said "Serbian forces will have emptied the country in 10 to 20 days," Shea told reporters in Brussels, Belgium.

Time is running out, Shea added. "We only need a couple of days of good weather in order to have a very major effect," he said.

In the Albanian capital of Tirana, Prime Minister Pandeli Majko said the NATO mission to his country would "guarantee the security of the international institutions working in Albania" and to assist in transport, infrastructure and logistics.

Italy's foreign ministry on Saturday expressed support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin's call for a summit on Kosovo by the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations. The United States already has rejected the idea.

Italy also said it expects the Contact Group _ comprising the United States and six European powers _ to meet next week on Kosovo. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine considered such a meeting "useful," said a ministry statement issued Saturday.

In neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO-led peacekeeping forces on Saturday blew up a crucial Yugoslav rail link connecting Serbia with the southern Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. The purpose was to prevent Yugoslav military forces from traveling on the line, according to a statement.

But during the operation, the Western troops exchanged gunfire with two attackers shooting assault rifles. A spokeswoman said they saw one of the attackers fall, and Bosnian Serb television reported a railway guard was killed by the troops.

Such exchanges and the spreading refugee crisis raised fears the Kosovo conflict could reach other parts of the Balkans, or farther.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, in an interview published in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, said failing to respect a nation's sovereignty could "lead to a world war."

But Zhu still plans to visit Washington next week, as scheduled, and Russia has insisted it won't get dragged into a military conflict. A Russian reconnaisance ship was heading toward the Adriatic Sea, where NATO ships launch cruise missiles at Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, military court proceedings involving three U.S. soldiers captured by Yugoslav forces this week continued, according to a judicial official quoted by state-run media. The proceedings reportedly involve drawing up charges.

Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic called the three soldiers prisoners of war, the strongest statement yet by a top Yugoslav official to the term that gives the soldiers protected status under the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.

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