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Yugoslavia: Kosovars Hide In Hills As Fighting Continues

Pristina, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) - Hundreds of Kosovar civilians are reported hiding in the hills northwest of the provincial capital Pristina after clashes today between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb forces. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has confirmed that Yugoslav tanks and armored vehicles were advancing near the town of Vucitrn, about 25 kilometers northwest of Pristina. The fighting comes as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright today urged both sides at peace talks in France to accept an accord drafted by the six-nation Contact Group.

Reports say Washington is increasing pressure on ethnic Albanian negotiators, who have been holding out and demanding a referendum on Kosovo's independence.

OSCE spokesman Walter Ebenberger said the fighting started this morning when Kosovo Liberation Army separatists attacked a Yugoslav army truck convoy. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Albright said yesterday that NATO would not carry out threatened air strikes as long as both sides refuse to accept the peace plan. But she said Yugoslav army forces would be bombed if Kosovar Albanians sign the accord and Belgrade continues to reject the plan.

Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, who returned to France today after consulting Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, says Yugoslavia will not accept NATO troops in Kosovo to police any deal. In a bid to make the accord more attractive to Belgrade, EU foreign ministers said the EU will lift sanctions against Yugoslavia and help rebuild Kosovo if agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria and Romania today called on Milosevic to allow NATO troops into Kosovo in order to resolve the crisis.

In a joint appeal to Milosevic, Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov and Romanian President Emil Constantinescu said an international peace initiative under NATO leadership is the only way to guarantee peace in Kosovo as well as protect Yugoslavia's territorial integrity.

Both Romania and Bulgaria hope to join NATO in the future. The two presidents said their countries are ready to provide any contribution necessary to a NATO force in Yugoslavia.

Belgrade's refusal so far to agree to a NATO peacekeeping force has been the biggest stumbling block to Kosovo peace talks in France. NATO officials say they are ready to move a 30,000 strong multi-national force into Kosovo to police a peace deal.