Rebel Rebound Clouds a Deal

Serb-Kosovar skirmishes threaten US-brokered peace. NATO wants Serbs out by Oct. 27, and rebels to hold fire.

Armed rebels patrol the dirt roads in this cluster of villages in central Kosovo. Two elite soldiers, from a group called the Black Tigers, strut near a roadside store, their berets low over their eyes and their guns slung over their shoulders.

Shaban Shala, a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), sits on a bench. Hugging a machine gun, he scans the crowd that has gathered to see him.

"When we see houses burned, when we see the killing of innocent people [and] families separated, it makes us stronger than ever before," says Mr. Shala.

In places like Obrinje, Yugoslavia, site of two massacres three weeks ago, the KLA is back - patrolling roads, guarding food-distribution centers, and sometimes exchanging fire with the Serbs.

Members of the rebel group say they have come far since absorbing heavy defeats over the past three months. New guerrilla tactics seem to be paying off.

But their timing does not bode well for efforts to bring a cease-fire to Kosovo. Serb forces were meant to have mostly withdrawn from the region by Oct. 27, under an agreement between US envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The KLA was meant to have stood by its own cease-fire.

The rebels had declared a unilateral cease-fire in recent weeks as a way of putting pressure on the Serb leadership to agree to a withdrawal.

Now the West finds itself weighing evidence of renewed Serb force against evidence that the rebels are exploiting Western pressure on Mr. Milosevic to advance their own fight.

NATO 'not KLA air force'

NATO commander Wesley Clark warned Milosevic to stop attacks - new shelling was reported Tuesday afternoon - and Milosevic said yesterday he remains committed to the peace agreement despite what he called "terrorist" attempts to sabotage it.

US State Department spokesman James Rubin also warned the KLA against provoking fighting that could lead to NATO airstrikes on the Serbs. Mr. Rubin said the KLA should not "consider NATO its air force. That will not be tolerated by the US," he said.

But the KLA and many ethnic Albanians have rejected the Holbrooke deal, saying it will take more than just a warning to persuade Milosevic to loosen his grip on the region he considers the cradle of Serbian culture.

"I don't trust Mr. Holbrooke because the Serbian offensive continues," says Shala. "It just gets worse and worse."

That perception has led to an increased hardening of the KLA's core.

"We are reorganized and we have new recruits," Shala says. " We are part of the people."

"My house was burned down, but I don't care," says Bashkim, a young KLA fighter from Likovac. "This is a war for independence, and I will keep fighting."

Although many of the Serbian troops have withdrawn, some remain. International observers have confirmed the presence in Drenica of a recently deployed battalion of tanks. One, camouflaged with tree branches, could be seen making its way through a hillside forest Tuesday morning.

Refugee crisis continues

The primary concern of Western diplomats is the safe return of internal refugees to their homes. Of the estimated 300,000 people uprooted, some 50,000 are still living in the open, says Laura Boldrini, the spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency.

In Obrinje, scores of refugees crowded around relief workers who brought bags of flour and sugar. One little boy was barefoot.

"Time is running out," says Ms. Boldrini. "It looks a bit better because [humanitarian relief agencies] have access now. But people still report shootings and shellings at night. People won't go home until they feel safe."

Several skirmishes have been reported in the past few days. In the village of Orlate, three Serbian policemen were killed over the weekend. In the Magura region, two Serbian journalists from the state news agency are missing.

On Tuesday a member of the KLA confirmed that the two had been kidnapped and were still alive. He said they would be released shortly, unharmed.

The killings and kidnappings, highly publicized on Serbian state television, could galvanize public opinion to abandon the NATO-ordered troop withdrawal from Kosovo. Many Serbs already feel that the West is against them.

While the Serbs say the Albanians provoked the current skirmishing, the Albanians say the opposite.

International observers say it may have been a little of both. A UN observer mission that arrived in Kosovo Tuesday reportedly set out yesterday to assess the situation on the ground, probing two pockets where fighting has been most entrenched.

More fighting could lead to the disintegration of the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement, which calls for 2,000 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to verify troop withdrawal. The Serbs have said all along that if they are attacked first, they will defend their positions. The KLA has said the same.

All of which could put the unarmed OSCE workers in a dangerous position as they begin to arrive in Kosovo.

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