Ethnic Strife Targets Gypsies

As new reports surfaced of retribution by ethnic Albanians, a Kosovo Gypsy leader Tuesday demanded safe passage to another country for thousands of his people who have sought refuge in camps in the turbulent province.

Many Gypsies have fled Kosovo since NATO's bombing campaign ended last month and Serb military and police departed.

Others packed into a huge camp outside Pristina, or took refuge elsewhere, out of fear of persecution by ethnic Albanians who accuse them of collaboration in the Serbs' violent campaign against the Albanian majority. The Gypsies say their houses have been burned or destroyed by angry Albanians.

Â"We would even go to the Himalayas to have freedom and rights,Â" said Ibrahim Hasani, co-leader of more than 5,000 Gypsies encamped at a school in Kosovo Polje since June 13.

If international officials or Kosovo peacekeepers don't provide a safe corridor for them to leave, Â"we'll open corridors of our own,Â" he said.

Minority Serbs have been the primary target of ethnic Albanian retribution since the refugees began returning.

In the latest such reported attack, an official in Serbia's ruling Socialist Party and his wife were severely beaten in Pristina, the provincial capital, the Yugoslav news agency reported. The Tanjug report said Zivorad Igic and his wife Mirjana were clubbed and kicked by ethnic Albanians during an apparent kidnapping attempt.

There was no immediate confirmation by the NATO-led peacekeeping force, known as KFOR.

Other incidents reported by KFOR reflected continuing unrest in the province, where at least 662,000 of the estimated 860,000 Kosovo Albanians who fled during NATO air strikes and Serb repression have returned.

A half-dozen fires were reported in Prizren, and Serbs set a house in Pec ablaze. KFOR soldiers also arrested Serbs and ethnic Albanians for having weapons in Kosovo.

The aid groups Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and Oxfam have been providing aid to the Gypsies living at Kosovo Polje, where goats and horses wander among tents. Peacekeepers also have kept an eye out for the Gypsies' safety.

But refugee officials are reluctant to guarantee the Gypsies, also known as Roma, passage out.

Â"If their situation becomes untenable then we'll have to resort to evacuating them,Â" Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva. Â"But we don't have any particular plan for safe passage at this stage.Â"

The issue of where they would go is difficult, he added, noting that even Serbia is Â"very, very wary of accepting anybody, including the Serbs from Kosovo at the moment.Â"

In the Yugoslav capital Tuesday, Serbian opposition activists resumed a campaign to oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic despite a police ban of their action. Some 200 people signed the petition calling for Milosevic's resignation within about 20 minutes at jus one of about two dozen points set up in Belgrade.

The main pro-democracy group, the Alliance for Change, has gathered some 150,000 signatures for the petition.

But one key opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, refused to join protests organized by the group. He announced Tuesday that he would campaign on his own for a change of leadership in Serbia.