As diplomats scramble to prevent all-out war in the troubled Serbian province of Kosovo, their hopes ride on an extensive observer mission that could lay the groundwork for a cease-fire.
The week-old program spearheaded by the United States will eventually send scores of military experts on fact-finding missions throughout the region, where fighting continues to threaten the stability of the Balkans. It will be the largest diplomatic presence in Kosovo to date.
"This is the single most positive thing to happen since I've been here," says a Western observer in Kosovo. "There have been a lot of lies going around, and this should finally get to the bottom of it."
The mission of about 40 observers, a dozen of whom will be from the US, underscores the international community's lack of first-hand knowledge about Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians have taken up arms to fight for independence and NATO is threatening to intervene.
Most of Kosovo's 2 million residents live in remote villages that are linked by unmapped dirt roads, making it difficult to document the fighting.
While diplomats have consistently blamed Serbian forces for being the aggressors, there is growing concern that the ethnic Albanian guerrillas known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are playing a role in the escalation of violence. One goal of the mission is to set the record straight.
More than 300 people, mostly ethnic Albanian civilians, have died, thousands have fled their homes, and several villages have been torched since the Serbian forces launched a Feb. 28 crackdown aimed at armed separatists.
Fighting over the weekend inched toward the western city of Pec, Kosovo's second-largest. Reports from inside the city said ethnic Albanian residents were nearing a state of panic as the sounds of gunfire and detonations bounced off the mountain ranges adjacent to the city.
The observer mission was arranged in part by Russian President Boris Yeltsin during his June meetings in Moscow with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It includes teams from the Contact Group - the US, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy - as well as representatives from the European Community and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Mr. Milosevic agreed to allow the observers provided they were officially registered in Belgrade, the capital of postwar Yugoslavia, which consists of Serbia and tiny Montenegro.
The observer patrols coincide with a changing focus of diplomatic efforts. Previously the Contact Group had put the onus on Milosevic to withdraw his forces from the region. Now, with advances by the KLA, diplomats are calling for a cease-fire.
But fighting on both sides is gradually slipping beyond the control of mainstream political leaders, making it difficult to orchestrate talks. Nevertheless, diplomats say having a strong web of observation points in place could help enforce a truce if the fighting were to stop.
The international community supports greater autonomy for Kosovo, but not the independence overwhelmingly favored by the impoverished region's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority.
The mission has drawn mixed reactions here. After its July 6 inaugural run, trailed by journalists, one local Albanian-language newspaper referred to it as a "diplomatic circus."
An official close to de facto ethnic Albanian President Ibrahim Rugova says the mission is welcome, but "it's ridiculous that if there's fighting they'll just stand by and see who's the winner.
"The point is ... there's fighting today and the observers are nowhere to be found," he says. "Maybe tomorrow, after the bombardment, they can take photos."
A Serbian government source says Belgrade officials are a bit alarmed because they did not anticipate such a large operation.
The observers will surely have contact with the KLA, which is increasingly receiving criticism for its lack of political leadership. Jakup Krasniqi, the KLA's self-styled spokesman, said in an interview Saturday with a local newspaper that he wanted Kosovo's politicians to form a united front with the KLA.
He also recently said the KLA favored a "Greater Albania," a radical plan opposed by the West. But local analysts warned against diplomats applying pressure to the KLA.
"If the observers go out into the field looking for the dark side of the KLA,they will surely lose their contacts with the KLA, and the mission will be questionable," says Dukagjin Gorani, an editor at the Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore.