New flareups in Kosovo ahead of Serbian referendum

rces and ethnic Albanian militants exchanged gunfire Wednesday in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, heightening tensions one day before a referendum to decide whether to allow foreign mediators to help resolve the conflict.
Each side accused the other of instigating the attacks, and Serb officials confirmed the presence of the Yugoslav army in the volatile region.
The incidents came as Serbs prepared to vote today in a nonbinding referendum called by autocratic President Slobodan Milosevic in a bid to help him resist Western pressure to allow foreign mediation.
Encouraged by an all-out campaign against foreign involvement in the crisis by the state-run media, Serbian voters are expected to resoundingly reject it.
Ethnic Albanians have increasingly demanded independence for Kosovo — a province of Yugoslavia’s Serbian republic which lost its autonomy in 1989 — since a Serb police crackdown last month in which more than 80 people were killed.
Western powers say Kosovo should be granted autonomy again, not independence, and threaten new sanctions against Yugoslavia unless it works to restore it. But Yugoslav-proposed negotiations have failed because the ethnic Albanians refuse to participate without Western officials present.
Serb authorities have beefed up their forces in a region southwest of the provincial capital of Pristina this week after reports of a mortar assault on the Serb refugee settlement of Babaloc and a separate assault on two Serb houses.
Ethnic Albanian leaders said police launched an attack Tuesday and Wednesday against an Albanian village in the area — also named Babaloc — with artillery and grenade launchers. They claimed an unspecified number of women and children were leaving the Decani area, trying to reach safety in Pristina.