Trading Blows: Kosovo Conflict Slips Into War

World powers still split on intervention as Yugoslav army, KLA rebels clash with more frequency and ferocity.

Ethnic Albanian women clutch tattered handbags as they walk the dusty trail that leads to safety. Sleepy children are not far behind, quietly marching along the edge of the waist-high wheat fields. In the distance, smoke billows from burning houses, targets of Serb artillery fire from the nearby hills.

The latest Serbian offensive - aimed at the villages surrounding a crucial coal mine six miles from the provincial capital of Pristina - is a familiar scene.

"They didn't bomb my house yet, but it will happen soon," says Enver Havolli, as he and his wife walk in the opposite direction from the Belacevac coal mine. "They are trying to scare us, to make us panic, to make us leave."

The independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) last week captured the mine with minimal violence in their most brazen military action to date. But Serbian forces countered June 29 and 30 with a relentless barrage of mortar fire that sent thousands of people fleeing to Pristina.

Although the threat of NATO intervention hangs over Kosovo and diplomats are scrambling to bring both sides to the negotiating table, the conflict is increasingly being contested on the ground in what looks close to the "general war" US envoy Richard Holbrooke spoke last week about averting.

The message behind the Serb's coal-mine counterstrike was clear: Some villages may be fair game, but Serbian power sources are not.

The Serbian offensive follows international demands that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stop his crackdowns in the region, where close to 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have been killed since late February and about 70,000 have been displaced from their homes.

But at least one diplomat in Kosovo says the Serbian offensive was to be expected, considering the KLA's recent boldness.

That boldness could carry a price. One senior Western diplomat here says the KLA is sometimes naive in its approach. "Waving a Kalashnikov [rifle] in the air and proclaiming a checkpoint is every Balkan child's dream."

In a view supported by the Russians, Mr. Milosevic has said a withdrawal of Serbian forces would lead to massive gains by the KLA, estimated to already control 40 percent of the region, which has a population of 2 million.

The open-pit coal mine, roughly the size of 10 football fields, feeds an electric plant in the town of Obilic, which supplies power to much of Kosovo. If the KLA had been able to hold it, it could have drained Serbia's already bankrupt economy.

Yugoslav state radio reported June 30 that Serb forces had retaken the mine. Reporters who reached the neighboring village of Kosovo Polje June 29 heard blasts at 10-second intervals. They were turned back by a group of Serbs who ethnic Albanian neighbors said were off-duty policemen. Masked Serbs - apparently paramilitaries - have also been seen here.

The battle for the coal mine caps a steady rise of violence in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. It contrasts the fluid expansion of the KLA with the numbing firepower of the Serbs.

IN other fighting, the KLA has had the central town of Kijevo surrounded for the past two weeks. Trapped inside are about 200 Serbian civilians and 20 policemen.

On June 29 a nine-year-old Albanian boy died from a battle-inflicted injury, the Albanian-run Kosovo Information Center said. Serbian helicopters have tried to shoot their way through the Kijevo blockade, but the KLA is well dug in.

American officials say hope for a diplomatic solution is fading and NATO intervention is topping the agenda.

The world powers are divided on intervention, however. US officials argue that NATO action without UN Security Council approval would be acceptable within international law. Yet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned against such a move.

"If NATO were to go in without [Security Council] approval, ... who else are they going to discipline tomorrow?" he asks. "How could they tell other regions or other governments not to do the same thing without Council approval?"

Making matters worse, diplomats say, is a gradual shift by the ethnic Albanians away from the pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, who is believed to have little control over the KLA.

American officials still favor Mr. Rugova, but have met with members of the the KLA and invited the guerrilla group to participate in peace talks.

Bobbing to the surface in Kosovo are more radical leaders, like Hydajet Hyseni, a former political prisoner who was frustrated by the inactivity of Rugova's political party and broke with him in February.

Mr. Hyseni says his ultimate goal is to unite Kosovo with neighboring Albania in a greater Albania. Given that radical stand, he even considers an independent Kosovo to be a fair compromise to the Serbs, who embrace the region as the basket of their culture. "What is happening now is everything that we dreamed of when we were young," says Hyseni.

The international community supports neither integration with Albania nor independence for Kosovo, but prefers autonomy or republic status within Yugoslavia.

Given the gulf between such views, diplomats say negotiations with radical leaders like Hyseni would be difficult.

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