But ethnic Albanians say lull is ploy to deceive the WestSerbian police declared their crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo over Sunday, a day before a key international meeting on whether the West should intervene to avert another Balkan disaster.
But prospects for lasting stability looked shaky after a four-day sweep in the southern province that resulted in devastated villages, burned houses, thousands of evacuations and at least 52 dead but possibly many more.Leaders of the ethnic Albanians, who comprise a 90 percent majority in Kosovo, claimed a lull in the fighting was planned to deceive the West. They called for mass rallies throughout Kosovo on Monday to protest "Serb terror."
Late Sunday, the ethnic Albanians' information center reported that Serb forces using heavy guns were firing on three other villages in the Klina region of Kosovo. The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic took away Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and has insisted the province is solely the concern of Yugoslavia, a two-part federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
Washington sounded a tough tone going into Monday's meeting about Kosovo with the so-called Contact Group of world powers in London. The group was set up during the Bosnian war to work out policy aimed at bringing peace to the Balkans.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said no options have been ruled out, warning that the conflict could spread wider if not swiftly halted.
"The time to stop the killing is now before it spreads," she said after talks with Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel in Germany.
The official casualty toll from the two recent sweeps of villages west of the Kosovo capital, Pristina, remained 46 Albanians and six Serb policemen killed, but ethnic Albanians claimed the casualties were higher.
Foreign diplomats and journalists had been kept at the edge of the Drenica conflict region throughout the crackdown, which the Serbs said was in response to increasing attacks by the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army.
But the Serbs apparently wanted to declare their action over before the Contact Group meeting, where they can count on fellow Slav Orthodox country Russia to limit any tough action against them.
On Sunday, they used buses to shuttle reporters and officials into the region, driving them through dozens of ghostly, virtually deserted villages whose Albanian residents had fled.
"The operation to liquidate the heart of Kosovo terrorism has ended," said the Serb deputy chief of Kosovo province, Veljko Odalevic.
In Donji Prekaz, a prime target of the Serbs, about half the village's 50 houses had been destroyed or heavily damaged and there were gaping holes in facades from heavy weapons, bullet-riddled or charred walls and shattered glass.
Worst-hit was a walled compound of five new houses that belonged to Adem Jashari, who the Serbs say was the KLA's leader. The militant group has claimed responsibility for the killings of over 50 people since it surfaced 19 months ago.
Evidence of heavy shelling was everywhere in the small targeted valley, with concrete utility poles snapped in half and empty high-caliber shells dotting roads and fields.
The acrid smell of burned houses filled the air, and hungry chickens and cows left behind by fleeing villagers roamed around looking for food.
Dozens of special police troops with machine guns and bulletproof vests guarded the village. They said the action was prompted by the "terrorist" activities of Jashari, 43, whom they claimed to have killed, and his relatives.
"Whenever we tried to enter the village they shot at us," said one high-ranking policeman. "We had to wipe them out, just like any police in the world would do."
He said a number of other fighters have escaped to the hills and that the Serb action may continue "one day" in order to catch them.
Meanwhile, Milosevic made another statement of defiance after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade. The official Tanjug news agency said Milosevic objected to "interference" by other countries.
About 7,000 Albanian women gathered in Pristina to rally against the crackdown. They raised blank white sheets of paper above their heads - symbolizing mourning and no rights - and turned toward the Drenica region for a moment of silence.
In the latest of numerous such protests worldwide, ethnic Albanians rallied in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey; Athens, Greece; and the border town of Ulcinj in Montenegro - Serbia's tiny co-partner in the Yugoslav federation.
The 1,500 demonstrators in Istanbul burned Serb flags outside the Yugoslav consulate and chanted "Stop the bloodshed in Kosovo."
Amid widespread fears of a mass refugee exodus, about 3,500 Albanians have fled Kosovo into neighboring Montenegro in the past two days, Montenegro media reported.