Christian Sites Being Decimated in Kosovo : Balkans: Serbs accuse ethnic Albanian rebels of systematically destroying places sacred to Orthodox.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The church was built of stones quarried six centuries ago from the rock of Kosovo, and before last week's blast it had the power to make people believe in miracles.

For generations, through endless cycles of war and foreign occupation, people came to the small Serbian Orthodox shrine behind monastery walls and asked the spirits of saints to heal them.

Pilgrims reached out to touch caskets said to contain relics of St. Cosma and St. Damian, or lay down beside them and whispered a prayer before closing their eyes and waiting to be healed. Even ethnic Albanian Muslims were known to come.

But the saints' power was as nothing against the explosion Sept. 13 that collapsed the 14th century church.

The charges that destroyed it were placed at just the right spot to bring the whole medieval building down and make certain there was nothing left to rebuild.

The Church of Saints Cosma and Damian was built in 1327. It is now a ruin of broken stone, yellowed by the centuries that the sanctuary endured.

Four other, newer buildings where the monks lived and worked were not blown up. They were gutted by fire instead, and scorched pieces of religious icons lie among the ruins.

A Painted Acronym Suggests Complicity

The letters UCK, the Albanian acronym for the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, were painted neatly in white on the wooden doors at the monastery's front gate.

The Zociste monastery is one of at least 60 Serbian Orthodox churches and other religious sites that have been looted, burned or, in at least 21 cases, blown up since the NATO-led peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, began to take control of Kosovo--a province of Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia's two republics--from retreating Serbian forces in mid-June. The Serbs say they were promised that several hundred of their soldiers and police would be permitted to return to guard Orthodox churches and sites in the province as well as to secure border posts, but so far that hasn't happened.

The list of sites destroyed by explosives includes several dating back to the Middle Ages, such as the Dormition of Mother of God parish church, built near Suva Reka in 1315.

Orthodox leaders have received reports that 20 more churches and monasteries have been destroyed, but it is too dangerous for Serbs to check their condition, Father Sava Janjic, an Orthodox cleric, said in an interview. Orthodox churches, religious offices and schools have also been targeted with grenades and rockets but not seriously damaged, KFOR reports confirm.

The skilled execution of the attacks leaves Janjic and most other Serbs convinced that well-trained KLA guerrilla units are secretly trying to wipe out historical Serbian links to the territory.

"It is more than obvious that these churches were destroyed by people with military training, people who still have not just ordinary weapons but hundreds of kilos of the best explosives," Janjic said.

"We are completely sure that the perpetrators of these crimes are from the ranks of the KLA," he said. "It is now only a question whether these groups are under the control of the highest KLA officials or not."

Dutch troops are posted just over a mile from Zociste, guarding Velika Hoca, a Serbian village of vineyards and churches dating back to the Middle Ages.

The village is outside the city of Orahovac, where ethnic Albanian leaders say Serbs killed 163 people after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24.

Serbian security and paramilitary forces, led by the head of the local winery, began rounding up and executing ethnic Albanians, said Agim Hesku, who leads a protest blockade that has been keeping Russian peacekeepers out of Orahovac since Aug. 23. A local Serbian doctor and Russian mercenaries participated in the killings, Hesku said.

At least 1,800 of the region's 60,000 ethnic Albanians were slain and an additional 1,000 are missing, Hesku said.

Hazards Hamper Search for Evidence

Peacekeeping troops have not found any suspects in the attack on the monastery in Zociste, and two Dutch army officers said troops hadn't gone in to examine the ruins for fear of land mines.

The officers, who would not speak on the record, said Dutch troops were ordered after the blast to block the wooden gate of the walled monastery with coils of razor wire.

"I'm afraid KFOR is not prepared to get in serious conflict with the KLA because KFOR countries don't want the coffins of their soldiers coming home," Janjic said.

Senior leaders of the KLA, such as political head Hashim Thaci, have publicly condemned attacks on Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo and insist that the separatist rebels are not behind the attacks on religious sites or other violence.

"All acts of violence and threats against Kosovo citizens are taking place with the goal of discrediting the national resistance movement," namely the KLA, Thaci said Aug. 19.

The KLA signed itself out of existence as of midnight Tuesday, but mounting evidence of systematic, clandestine attacks and the discovery of arms caches suggest that Kosovo's ethnic violence might not end so quickly. Never a strictly united guerrilla army, the KLA has always been split between moderates and hard-liners. KFOR officers say privately that they fear radicals might be waging a secret war in Kosovo.

The peacekeepers also have accused Serbs of trying to destabilize Kosovo. They say paramilitary units appear to be infiltrating from Serbia proper.

At the height of Kosovo's civil war, KLA guerrillas attacked the Zociste monastery with grenades and light artillery on July 21, 1998, as the rebels seized nearby Orahovac.

After taking control of the monastery, the guerrillas took seven monks, an elderly nun and 30 elderly Serbian refugees prisoner. They were later released uninjured.

But the KLA also captured an estimated 85 Serbs in Orahovac, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. By August 1998, 40 Serbs were still unaccounted for, the rights group said. Serbian officials reported the missing Serbs to the Red Cross, but none of them have been found. Serbs continue to disappear in Kosovo despite Thaci's repeated calls for an end to ethnic violence.

Thaci and most of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority are committed to winning independence for Kosovo, even though Western governments say it must remain a province of Serbia.

Ethnic Albanians accuse the Serbs of destroying at least 120 mosques over the past year and a half. Serbs also allegedly massacred 15 Muslim imams during the 78-day NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring and jailed 20 others who are still in Serbian prisons, according to Sabir Bajgori, head of the Islamic Council of Kosovo.

While the NATO-led peacekeeping force tries to stop the attacks on Serbs, it calls them acts of revenge.

Janjic, who has repeatedly condemned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian security forces for massacring ethnic Albanians, sees a more sinister campaign to permanently remove Serbs from Kosovo.

"Of course, there were acts of revenge, but it is more than obvious that there has been a systematic attempt to push the Serbs out of Kosovo in order to create a fait accompli," he said.

More than three months after NATO's bombing campaign drove Serbian security forces out of Kosovo, a NATO-led peacekeeping force of at least 40,000 troops has failed to stop the ethnic violence.

While the victims have come from different ethnic groups, the heaviest attacks since the peacekeepers arrived have been against Serbian targets. They have included at least three separate attacks that killed four Serbs and wounded 12 in recent weeks in the U.S.-patrolled zone in the southeast.

In a separate incident in western Kosovo, peacekeepers arrested eight KLA guerrillas Sept. 10 in the city of Djakovica after finding a machine gun, ammunition, 30 cluster bombs, two 85-millimeter antitank weapons and several antipersonnel mines in their apartment.

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