Kosovo Rebels May Revert to Tactic That Won Early Gains

A guerrilla fight may be last hope versus Serbs, who now appear to be pushing for a rout before any talks.

In an ongoing offensive aimed at crushing separatist rebels, Serbian forces rolled through central and western Kosovo this week, dimming the hopes for peace talks.

The month-old operation has pushed the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) from many of its strongholds and flooded the region with internal refugees, of which international monitors now estimate there are 240,000.

In the attacks, Serbian forces have burned villages, destroyed crops, and killed livestock - an apparent attempt to dissuade ethnic Albanians civilians from supporting the KLA, observers say.

As heavy fighting continued near the border with Albania, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week called the military tactics of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a "scorched-earth policy."

Diplomats say the crucial question now is how the battered guerrilla force will react to the Serbian offensive.

A KLA statement issued this week says the Serbian attacks have "only strengthened our resolve to bravely continue on the road to freedom."

But military analysts say it is more likely that the KLA will regroup and go back to the more traditional guerrilla tactics it used successfully at the early stages of the conflict.

IN the spring the KLA made steady gains by hiding in the hills and launching hit-and-run attacks on isolated Serbian police patrols. The Serbs appeared lost as they gave chase and fell into one trap after another.

But with each success, the KLA grew bolder, parading for the press, capturing towns and even overrunning a crucial coal mine just miles away from the provincial capital of Pristina.

When it came time to defend their newly acquired land, the KLA was no match for Serbian tanks and mortar shells.

Now they struggle to keep their few remaining strongholds and have the added burden of caring for internal refugees.

The Serbs have regained their bargaining position, but do not seem ready to go to the table until the rebels have been routed.

Meanwhile, the international community continues to map out contingency plans for military action if the violence continues to escalate.

Those plans took on added weight this week when Russia, once considered the main opposition to using force against the Serbs, said it may send troops to join NATO exercises near Kosovo - a signal that Moscow may reconsider its stance.

The UN is weighing airstrikes against Serbian military bases as well as implementing a force on the Yugoslav-Albanian border to stem the flow of arms between the two countries. Nevertheless, diplomats have made firm distinctions between Kosovo and the war in Bosnia, in which airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs were a precursor to peace talks. Shoring up support for armed intervention in Kosovo would be a major undertaking, diplomats say.

With both sides resisting peace talks, international powers have had to refocus their strategy in Serbia's southern province, where decades of tension erupted into fighting Feb. 28.

Western diplomats have expressed frustration at trying to negotiate with the KLA guerrillas. The KLA has fractured the ethnic Albanian political front and put increasing pressure on Ibrahim Rugova, a US-backed pacifist elected overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians in underground elections in 1992 and again this year.

Both Mr. Rugova and the KLA want independence for Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are 90 percent of the population. But Rugova is perceived as being more willing to settle for broad autonomy - the position favored by the international community.

The US, which is spearheading attempts at mediation, has sought to create a united front between the KLA and Rugova. Those efforts have been foiled, however, by the KLA's apparent unwillingness to negotiate.

"Some of these [KLA] voices don't amount to much," says a diplomatic source in the Balkans. "So we have to go with people who can produce, like Rugova."

The source says Rugova is close to announcing a new negotiating team to possibly meet with the Serbs. Previous talks were cut off early this summer when the Serbs launched a major attack in western Kosovo and the Albanians said they could not negotiate "with a gun to our heads."

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