Battle erupts in Kosovo capital between Serbs, KLA guerrillas; Pristina sees fighting for first time in conflict


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Explosions and bursts of machine-gun fire echoed across Kosovo's capital yesterday in what appeared to be a pitched battle between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian security forces -- the first time that Pristina has seen such fighting.

The heavy fighting in Pristina began around 9: 30 a.m. yesterday, and the sound was loud enough in the center of the city that at first it appeared that NATO was delivering on its promise to start bombing Kosovo during the day.

But no air-raid sirens wailed, and NATO did not announce any daylight airstrikes on Pristina at its daily briefing.

Until now, Kosovo's war was fought in the countryside, and the closest Pristina came to it was a few street bombings. It isn't clear if these bombings were carried out by Serbs or ethnic Albanians.

The capital is bracing for more heavy NATO airstrikes after bombers destroyed the Interior Ministry police headquarters in the middle of the capital Monday but left the Yugoslav army's low-rise headquarters untouched.

With a Serbian offensive under way throughout much of Kosovo, it was impossible to confirm yesterday's reported battle with KLA sources. But mounting sniper attacks on Pristina in recent days also suggest that at least a small force of guerrillas is on the capital's outskirts.

The city is small and fringed by wooded hills, which offer ideal cover for guerrillas.

One of the reasons Serbs are so determined to hold on to Kosovo is that several important medieval churches and monasteries are here. Milosevic has scored propaganda points from a NATO near-miss that damaged one of the most cherished sites.

On the second night of airstrikes, NATO's targets included an ammunition dump near the Gracanica monastery, a 679-year-old site that Serbs revere.

The medieval building, about four miles southeast of Pristina, did not suffer a direct hit. But the force of the blasts and secondary explosions cracked the monastery's facade, and state television broadcast video of the damage.

Pub Date: 3/31/99

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