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Russia aims to halt airstrikes in Kosovo
Talks take place as NATO steps up attacks

SHARE Russia aims to halt airstrikes in Kosovo
Talks take place as NATO steps up attacks

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Russia's prime minister launched a diplomatic bid Tuesday to end NATO's air campaign in Yugoslavia, as Western forces expanded attacks around the clock on Serb forces accused of forcing ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

The ITAR-Tass news agency reported the talks, which lasted a few hours longer than expected, ended Tuesday afternoon. It quoted Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov as saying: "The talks have brought results, details to follow."Primakov then left for Bonn, Germany, to meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the current president of the European Union.

NATO officials said Tuesday that the number of ethnic Albanians who have fled Kosovo in the last six days has grown to 118,000, and Pec, a city of 100,000 residents in western Kosovo, has been "almost totally destroyed."

The alliance said it had received reports that Yugoslav military forces had opened fire with tanks and artillery at refugees in the Pagarusa Valley, but it had no confirmation.

Rebel sources said Serbs attacked the area, southwest of the provincial capital of Pristina, where at least 50,000 ethnic Albanians have been living since being chased from their homes last summer.

Ramush Hajredinaj, a regional commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, said the attack appeared intended to drive the civilians into Albania.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea described the Kosovo situation as "a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportion" with about 30 percent of the Kosovo population -- some 570,000 people -- uprooted.

"Serbian ethnic cleansing has reached new heights," NATO air commander David Wilby said at Tuesday's briefing in Brussels, Belgium.

"In many cases they have been provided with 'free transport,' " Shea said. "They are simply busing people to the frontier to get them out as quickly as possible. You don't improvise a whole bus fleet if you haven't planned this operation a long time in advance."

A Yugoslav official for the first time acknowledged that atrocities by Yugoslav troops and Serb police in Kosovo may be occurring.

"Emotions rise up extremely, and it's possible that there are circumstances to crack down, maybe atrocities, but it is not a state strategy," Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic said in an interview broadcast on Israel's Army Radio.

Reports of mass killings and forced removals, with entire villages being burned and cities cleared of ethnic Albanians, have increased since NATO forces began the bombing and missile campaign a week ago.

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said Tuesday that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "will try over the next two to three weeks to turn Kosovo into a region of destroyed villages where the adult male population will have been interned or killed and the rest driven out or fleeing."

Wilby said that two burning villages were seen in Kosovo, showing aerial photos of smoke billowing in the air.

With international monitors having left Kosovo and virtually all foreign journalists kicked out, the reports are impossible to verify. But the consistency in details of an apparent systematic Serb campaign to rid some parts of Kosovo of ethnic Albanians gave credence to allegations by Western leaders of ethnic cleansing.

Primakov began discussions with Milosevic Tuesday morning with the goal of "an immediate halt" to the bombing of Yugoslavia.

"We have arrived here . . . in order to transfer the process into a political course . . . to find an acceptable decision in the course of political consultations," Primakov was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.

The talks were the most high-level mediation effort since the NATO airstrikes began.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that NATO plans to intensify its air attacks. Blair said he spoke with President Clinton and with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, and "we are absolutely at one on this: The answer to what is happening is to intensify the attacks."

"It is to get in and hit Milosevic and his murderous thugs very, very hard," Blair said.

The upheaval that some Western relief officials say threatens to become Europe's worst humanitarian crisis since World War II continued to spread, with waves of refugees further stretching the ability of overburdened neighbors -- Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro -- to care for them.

The Australian charity CARE told the Australian broadcaster ABC radio that at least nine ethnic Serb refugees had been killed as a result of airstrikes on buildings near centers housing Serb refugees from earlier conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. The staff heard of six more deaths at other refugee centers, said Steve Pratt, director of CARE's operation in Yugoslavia.

More than 60,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees have arrived in northern Albania since the attacks began last Wednesday.

Macedonia, on Kosovo's southeastern border, said it had reached its 20,000 limit on refugees and would need help to cope with any more. Montenegro said 25,000 refugees had crossed into the country over the last three days.