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Up to 23 Ethnic Albanians Slain, Serb Officials Say

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Government troops killed as many as 23 ethnic Albanians in a series of clashes in beleaguered Kosovo province, Serbian officials said Thursday.

Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said soldiers fought an all-night battle with about 200 ethnic Albanian militants trying to cross into Kosovo from neighboring Albania. State radio put the toll at 16. There was no way to resolve the discrepancy late Thursday night.

An army statement said troops blocked the insurgents from crossing into Yugoslavia at daybreak Thursday.

Details on the clashes were released by the Serbian Media Center in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, shortly after polls closed in a referendum asking Serbians to vote on foreign mediation for Kosovo. The ethnic Albanian majority in the province is seeking independence.

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With about 20% of Serbia’s 189 voting districts reporting, 97% of voters opposed outside mediation, referendum commission secretary Nebojsa Rodic told reporters around midnight Thursday. Rodic said final results expected today would probably show a similar result. Ethnic Albanians boycotted the referendum.

The toll was the largest since a sweep by Serbian police in early March left more than 80 ethnic Albanians dead. With tensions already high, the deaths of nearly two dozen more ethnic Albanians are bound to further poison relations between Serbia’s government and the province, which is more than 90% ethnic Albanian.

Despite the clashes, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remained uncompromising on the referendum.

“This referendum is for Serbia to decide about Serbia,” said Milosevic in an emphatic message after casting his ballot. “I believe we can solve all these current worries of ours.”

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Milosevic is seeking public backing for his defiant policies on Kosovo. An overwhelming “no” to international mediation was expected from the referendum, which is valid if more than half of Serbia’s 7.2 million voters cast ballots.

Serbian state television, in an evening newscast shortly before polls closed, said more than 60% of eligible voters had cast ballots.


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