Serb forces pounded villages with heavy artillery and tank fire Tuesday in the heartland of ethnic Albanian resistance in Kosovo province.

The attack was centered on an area northwest and southwest of the provincial capital of Pristina. Reporters could see the flash of muzzle fire from tanks and artillery, which hit at least five villages on the main road between Pristina and Kosovska Mitrovica, about 25 miles to the northwest.Columns of smoke could be seen rising from the villages. The attack appeared aimed at the Cicevica mountains on the edge of the Drenica region, a known stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

A Serb police commander, who refused to give his name, estimated it would take his troops no more than three days to clear the rebel KLA from the Drenica area, where Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched his crackdown on ethnic Albanian extremists six months ago.

The KLA is fighting for independence in the province of Serbia, the larger of the two republics in Yugoslavia. Most of the Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority support independence, and thousands of refugees are believed to be hiding in the mountain forests.

The ethnic Albanian-run Kosovo Information Center said at least 16 people, including six women and two children under age 5, had been injured so far in the Serb attack on 15 villages.

There was no casualty report from the Serbs. But another senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said government troops were attacking Drenica from all four directions and had cut off all guerrilla escape routes.

The attack began as diplomats and world leaders were gathered in New York for the annual debate of the U.N. General Assembly.

The major powers have been struggling since March to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo, where Albanians comprise 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants.

But Russia and China - both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - have refused to sanction NATO military intervention, despite fears that winter could bring death to tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees.

In the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, Milosevic insisted Monday that the refugees are receiving care and shelter and that international concerns about their fate are misplaced.