Kosovo War Still Outpaces Bid for Peace Talks

EU diplomats cite progress, but ethnic Albanians cling to goal of independence.

Despite glimmers of promise for diplomacy in recent days, fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo has entered a dangerous new phase, with violence pushing toward major cities.

Already more than 400 people, mainly ethnic Albanian civilians, have been killed, and some 80,000 displaced, during the five-month crisis. But until recently the conflict had been limited to rural villages, where civilians are easily evacuated and casualties can be kept to a minimum.

"If you have battles in the farms, it's easy for civilians to run into the bushes and hide," says a US diplomat in Belgrade. "But in an urban environment, you're going to cause major damage and more people will get hurt."

Tuesday, independence-seeking guerrillas abandoned the town of Malisevo, a stronghold in central-west Kosovo, in the face of a strong Serb offensive. Human rights agencies reportedly say 20,000 refugees from that fight remain unaccounted for.

Serb offensive rolls

Last week, Serbian forces clashed with the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in the nearby city of Orahovac, which has a population of 200,000, making it roughly the size of the provincial capital, Pristina. Albanian sources say nearly 40 ethnic Albanians were killed, including some women and children.

Although the KLA initiated the fighting and demonstrated new firepower, the Serbs cleared the town after five days of fighting. It's the second time this month the KLA has claimed a victory only to be overrun in the end.

Commanders of the KLA, which may control more than a third of Kosovo, have said they will step up their campaign.

"This is the beginning of this type of war which will end up in Pristina," a KLA commander in Orahovac recently said.

In Pristina, where mention of the KLA was once taboo, young men speak openly about joining.

"Many of my friends have gone and I will go one day too," says Halim Nuredini, a student sitting at the Queens cafe in downtown Pristina.

European diplomats arrived in Kosovo Wednesday for talks with ethnic Albanian leaders. The same day, moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova said he had reached a compromise with other Albanians on a coalition government.

The diplomats also met yesterday with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Recent reports indicate that ethnic Albanians may be close to agreeing to an "all-party platform" for talks with the Belgrade government that could include include representatives of the KLA.

But continued fighting may yet bring an international response. Wednesday, the London-based newspaper The Guardian said NATO was "finalizing plans to contain the fighting in Kosovo."

The Dayton formula?

Ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs in Kosovo 9 to 1, are holding to their demand for independence.

The Serbs are making vague offers of autonomy, but seem willing to continue fighting.

Radical groups within the ethnic Albanian political apparatus still threaten Mr. Rugova's power.

The ethnic Albanian insistence on independence has agitated the United States and other Western powers, who support broad autonomy. Germany and France, two members of the Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia, have proposed the arrangement of peace talks similar to those in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995.

But in Bosnia, peace talks came in the wake of NATO air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs that helped the Muslim-Croat alliance. In Kosovo, it appears that the ethnic Albanians have little to gain from a Dayton-style conference.

* Material from wire reports was used in preparing this story.

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