Awaiting Next Move of Serbs, Kosovars Must Now Plan Own

A failure by the world powers to sway Milosevic could next force a restive province to react. But how?

Still stinging from a brutal police crackdown that claimed scores of lives, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo province have for the moment withdrawn from the streets and are awaiting international help.

"Now we have to go back to our homes and try to protect our women and children," says Mustaf Kulinxha as he makes his way down a snow-covered street in downtown Pristina.

Mr. Kulinxha is part of a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority in the southern Serbian region of Kosovo, where police crackdowns over the last 10 days left at least 80 dead.

Police said the raids - in which women and children were killed - were necessary to contain the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which has been characterized as a terrorist group by the international community.

Rather than protest in the streets, as they did March 9 in a 50,000-strong peaceful demonstration (some reports made it twice that number), the ethnic Albanians appear to be waiting for the Serbs' next move.

The six-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia agreed March 9 to give Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic 10 days in which to begin seeking a political solution to the Kosovo crisis or risk the imposition of tougher sanctions than those already in place. US Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard arrived March 10 in Kosovo after meeting with President Milosevic in Belgrade.

The outcome of the 10-day period will be crucial in shaping future ethnic Albanian policy, says Ylber Hysa, a political editor at Koha Ditore, an independent ethnic Albanian newspaper in Pristina. If no significant progress is made, he says, the Albanian leadership with have to consider a new approach to the problem.

"Now it's Mr. Milosevic's and the international community's turn to act," says Mr. Hysa. "If Milosevic does not take this seriously, then the [ethnic] Albanians will definitely come to the stage."

The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have grown used to waiting. Since Milosevic stripped them of autonomy in 1989, they have practiced peaceful resistance, largely by boycotting most Serbian institutions and setting up an underground government and schools. In a 1991 underground referendum, 99 percent of voters favored independence from Yugoslavia.

But the Albanian population of about 2 million has grown increasingly restive in the past two years, giving rise to more aggressive approaches, such as that of the KLA, which, though still mysterious, seems to have earned the sympathy of the masses here.

"It's good that people are trying to protect themselves," said an ethnic Albanian in Pristina who identified himself only as Beni. "The repression here is intolerable. We can not live with it for eternity."

According to a Serbian government official who requested anonymity, police are still hunting suspected members of the KLA in the Drenica region, which remains sealed off by police.

"[The KLA] is hiding in the woods and we're pursuing them," says the official.

The ruling ethnic Albanian political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), headed by Ibrahim Rugova, has distanced itself from the KLA.

"For now we have to continue with peaceful resistance," said Muhamet Hamiti, an LDK spokesman. "But if that does not affect [the Serbs], and they continue to use force, it will be hard for anyone to keep the Albanians together along a peaceful line."

Although the frustration that has mounted over the last two years has given rise to opposition political leaders, the LDK and Mr. Rugova remain immensely popular.

Demonstrators March 9 chanted "Rugova, Rugova" as they marched in the streets, raising their hands and making peace signs.

"There are many options, but I will listen to what my president says," said Besim Hamiti, a university student in Pristina.

Rugova, who was elected in 1992, is especially popular in the villages, where his simple message - independence through passive resistance - is easily understood.

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