CRNI LUG, YUGOSLAVIA — In a salute to a slain rebel officer, six guards of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fire shots into the pale afternoon sky.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians bow their heads, and more than 200 KLA foot soldiers stand at attention, clutching well-worn automatic weapons.
It is the biggest public gathering of the secessionist guerrilla army to date, a ceremony not just to bury Imer Krasniqi, shot by a Serbian sniper, but a also to show the might of the ethnic Albanian independence fighters.
As the crowd breaks, however, officers jostle for control, barking conflicting directions while machine guns hang loosely from their shoulders.
Villagers chaotically disperse, paying less attention to their "liberators" than to the television crews that line the street. More than anything, the gathering is a reminder that this is an army lacking both organized command and political leadership.
"The KLA has mushroomed.... It's out of control," says a high-ranking Western diplomat. "The Albanian [leaders] will have trouble cutting deals like this. They have to exert some control."
Almost six months after the KLA emerged from the shadows and began claiming swaths of the Kosovo countryside, there is still no clear picture of its leadership.
As NATO considers military intervention, and fighting continues near the Albanian border, diplomats say the need for the KLA to develop a political wing is becoming urgent if there is to be a political resolution to the crisis.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who met this week with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, says he will negotiate with the ethnic Albanians, but not with the "terrorist" KLA. Albanian leaders in Kosovo say they won't resume talks with Mr. Milosevic until he withdraws forces from the region, a move Milosevic has refused.
Already close to 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, have been killed, and more than 50,000 refugees have been driven from their homes in Kosovo.
Making matters worse in recent weeks, diplomats say, is the directionless rise of the KLA, which has undermined the authority of de facto ethnic Albanian President Ibrahim Rugova.
Opposition leaders and critics of Mr. Rugova are auditioning to take the reins of the KLA.
Rugova, who was elected to his post in a 1992 underground election, has been the favorite son of US diplomats largely because of his nonviolent approach. Following last month's talks in Belgrade with Milosevic, Rugova was invited to the White House to meet President Clinton.
But the meeting with Milosevic carried a heavy price tag. According to a source inside Rugova's political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), party officials convened shortly after the meeting with Milosevic and expressed "the strongest criticism of Rugova since he was elected."
The source also says several leaders have broken ranks with the LDK in recent months, primarily because they perceive Rugova's approach to be too passive.
One such leader is Jakup Krasniqi. Mr. Krasniqi this week declared himself "spokesman" for the KLA, though his authority has yet to be confirmed.
According to ethnic Albanian sources, Krasniqi has close ties to a group of leaders who recently broke from the LDK and formed the "New LDK." Ethnic Albanian political sources say members of this party are the most likely to emerge as a political wing.
The New LDK is partially made up of former political prisoners who, according to Western diplomats, are far more radical than Rugova. They also have links to ethnic Albanians in Switzerland, Germany, and Albania who also claim control of the KLA.
All of which leaves the West, which does not support independence, wondering whom it can count on in serious negotiations.
Officially, the United States and its allies do not recognize the KLA as a legitimate representative of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, and they continue to promote negotiations led by Rugova.
But some Western officials privately acknowledge Rugova's loss of authority and are eager to begin a "back channel" dialogue with the rebels. These officials say that the KLA will eventually have to be brought into the negotiating process if a political settlement is to be reached.
The top KLA sympathizer in the US, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the rebels realize they must chose a political leader to present their demands to the US and its allies. But, he says, it may be weeks before they do.
Several candidates have been considered and rejected, he says, including Krasniqi and Bujar Bukoshi, the "prime minister" of the ethnic Albanian's self-proclaimed government-in-exile.
"We are looking for someone with a public reputation," he says.
For the moment the West seems to be clinging to Rugova.
"[A political wing to the KLA] has to somehow be meshed in with the Rugova factor," says a Western diplomat. "This problem is not going to be won in the field, it will be won through dialogue."
* Monitor staff writer Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.