BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — Kosovo is a rugged, impoverished province in southern Serbia that has fallen decades behind the modern world of Europe. It is a land of shepherds and farmers, dirt roads and tractors, hulking Christian Orthodox monasteries and soaring minarets atop Muslim mosques.
It is also the site of a violent ethnic conflict, in which 2,000 people have died, 300,000 have been driven from homes, and villages have been leveled.
Of Kosovo's 2 million population, 90 percent are ethnic Albanians, almost all of whom want independence. The Serbs, backed by a heavily armed police force, say Kosovo is the cradle of their culture and must remain in Serbia, which, along with tiny Montenegro, is all that is left of Yugoslavia. Both sides have historical claims to the land.
Fighting broke out last year with the emergence of ethnic Albanian rebel fighters known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which sought to stand up to years of brutal police rule by the Serbs. The Serbs call the KLA "terrorists," and have justified brutal crackdowns as necessary to contain the rapidly developing rebel army.
The region is also of great importance to the international community, which sees Kosovo as a potential powder keg in the volatile Balkans.
It is feared that fighting could spread to neighboring countries - particularly Macedonia, which has a restive 30 percent ethnic Albanian population. Kosovo could also disrupt Bosnia, where the United States has invested money and troops.
The US has been concerned about Kosovo for years but did not react strongly until last year, when mass killings and destruction began to dominate newspaper headlines. Now the US and its allies are trying to push peace on the warring factions, whose leaders are at a conference in Rambouillet, France.
It appears that a final settlement will be a long time coming. Both sides want the land, and both seem willing to fight for it. If the peace conference does not work, NATO has threatened airstrikes.