Kosovo Reacts to Serb Shells: A Tactic of Fight and Flight

Guerrillas gain wide support as many civilians flee. NATO holds back, watches.

On a hardened dirt road in central Kosovo that twists through the rocky hills, a young ethnic Albanian wearing a Chicago Bulls cap stands watch.

When a truck rumbles around the bend, he motions toward the nearby bushes. Quickly, another man appears, this one carrying a machine gun. Then come others, until the truck is surrounded by men of all ages.

Whether they are members of the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or just armed villagers protecting themselves, such groups can be found all throughout the southern Serbian province of Kosovo.

In at least one village, they have grown bold enough to drive cars with homemade KLA license plates.

Serbs' provocative tack

As the crisis in Kosovo continues to escalate and the KLA gains popularity, the Serbian police face a major dilemma. If they sit idly and let the KLA grow, they will lose control of the region. If they attack, they will draw international attention and provoke the ethnic Albanians, who have a 9 to 1 population advantage.

They are choosing the latter. In recent days, Serb forces have shelled villages, burned houses, and killed at least 30 people, according to ethnic Albanian sources. Several Serbs also died in the fighting, focused around the western towns of Decani and Junik, near the Albanian border.

Yesterday morning the shelling continued, and witnesses reported seeing thousands of displaced people near Decani. Police allowed them to walk west toward Albania, while others headed off in the opposite direction, toward the city of Pec.

The United Nations refugee agency says about 2,000 villagers fled to Albania following the latest attack, further indicating that Kosovo is no longer just an internal problem, as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic claims.

In an interview Tuesday with state television, Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said: "We can no longer speak of a conflict in Kosovo, we can now speak only of war there."

NATO said yesterday that it would not rush into sending allied troops to Albania or Kosovo.

"We all agreed we cannot proceed until we have solid, well thought-out military advice," a NATO official said in Brussels.

The border region has been under heavy attack for more than a week. Reporters have been denied access to the area and some phone lines have been cut - a strategy increasingly being used by the Serb authorities.

"Information is slowly trickling out," says Muhamet Hamiti, a spokesman for the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Information Center. "We have heard that Decani is in rubble. It exists only as a geographical concept, not as a city."

The Serbs appear to be clearing a strip along the border between Kosovo and Albania, a zone that, in theory, would cut support links providing arms, food, and manpower to the guerrillas.

Sympathy for the KLA runs high in Albania, as well as in neighboring Macedonia, where a half-million ethnic Albanians live.

Seeking international help

In New York early this week, after a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova said the Serbs were conducting "massacres and massive ethnic cleansing." He asked for UN intervention to stop the bloodshed.

Mr. Rugova, who was elected de facto president of Kosovo in underground elections in 1992, may face problems of his own. In the provincial capital of Pristina, he is criticized for having gone to Belgrade last month to meet Mr. Milosevic without an international mediator present. The meeting was seen as a major concession to both the Serbs and American diplomats.

Two weeks after meeting Milosevic, Rugova was invited to Washington to meet President Clinton. Milosevic was rewarded by the dropping of proposed sanctions that would have cut foreign investment in Serbia. But despite talks, the fighting has not diminished.

"Meeting Milosevic was a bad idea," says a source inside Rugova's political party. "Not all of us agreed with that." Rugova's negotiating team has yet to announce whether it will go ahead with more talks Friday.

It remains to be seen what kind of influence Rugova has in the villages, and whether he could stop the KLA. An April poll by the US Information Agency put Rugova's approval rating at 98 percent of the 2 million Kosovar Albanians. But his tactic of passive resistance seems to be losing ground to the armed guerrilla movement.

More than 200 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have been killed in Kosovo since a Feb. 28 police crackdown in Drenica, in which 30 women and children were killed. Diplomatic sources say guerrillas may control close to half the countryside.

Serbs consider Kosovo to be the cradle of their culture, but many of the special police forces in the region are conscripts from northern Serbia who are unmotivated to fight for the Milosevic regime.

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