As an afternoon sun melted the snow on this hilltop base of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), soldiers walked about with a confident ease and prepared for another day of battle.
On the eve of the Feb. 28 anniversary marking the start of their open conflict with the Serbs, the KLA appeared to have completed a transformation from a rag-tag band of armed villagers into a seasoned army that has showed success at hit-and-run guerrilla warfare, regionalized command structures, and even restraint.
But beneath their newfound military sensibility, political differences are emerging within the KLA, as it enters the world of international diplomacy and faces the prospects of a peace settlement that would require it to disarm.
"The KLA, and me as a soldier ... we didn't take up arms just to give them up," says Shaban Shala, a lieutenant in the central region of Drenica, as he sat behind a wooden desk flanked by a secretary and a computer, "at least not until we have secured freedom for all the people in Kosovo."
After becoming the leading voice of some 1.8 million Kosovar Albanians, and participating in high-profile peace talks in Rambouillet, France, the KLA is now weighing whether it will accept a plan to grant Kosovo broad autonomy from the Yugoslav government, but not the outright independence for which the guerrillas have been fighting and dying over the past year.
The KLA faces great pressure from the international community to accept the plan for autonomy, which calls for 28,000 NATO peacekeeping troops to take control of the region. If the KLA signs the proposed agreement when peace talks resume March 15 - and by most indications, it will - the onus will shift to the Serbs, who could face airstrikes if they continue to resist NATO peacekeepers.
If it doesn't sign, the KLA risks being left alone to face the superior Serbian police and military forces, which are blamed for instigating much of the fighting in Kosovo.
Who now runs the KLA?
At the center of the debate is Adem Demaci. A former political prisoner who was held for 28 years, he is perhaps the KLA's most influential ideologue. Mr. Demaci has come out strongly against the proposed peace settlement on the grounds that it falls well short of the outright independence that the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo overwhelmingly wants.
He refused to attend the talks in Rambouillet, but is credited with having exerted his influence over younger KLA representatives to prevent them from signing the pact.
As the talks were going on, he also helped appoint a supreme commander for the KLA, Sylejman Selimi, who is in his late 20s.
While Demaci is a respected figure in Kosovo whose dedication and credentials cannot be questioned, he has come under fire in recent days by more moderate ethnic Albanians who want to accept autonomy.
A 'small coup'
"He's trying to make a small coup," says Dukagjin Gorani, the editor of the ethnic Albanian Koha Ditore Times and one of those present during negotiations at the peace talks.
"He's trying to transform the KLA from a military organization into a political organization that he controls."
Koha Ditore, the influential parent publication of Mr. Gorani's paper, once supported Demaci, but recently said in a front-page editorial: "This time he decided to be against everybody. Against the international community, America, the European Union, the government in Albania, and the decisions of the Kosovo delegation in Rambouillet."
Nevertheless, in the rural villages where the war is being fought, and in the youthful command of the KLA, Demaci wields considerable influence.
"Mr. Demaci has his own attitude and character," says Lt. Shala. "He has political experience, strength, and he knows what he is speaking about."
Still harboring independence hopes
Other KLA commanders are hopeful that Demaci will reconsider the peace proposal and possibly change his mind - perhaps before a March 2 press conference he will hold in the provincial capital of Pristina.
A regional KLA commander known as Drini, who says he oversees 25 percent of Kosovo, said he thinks Demaci - who has refused to participate in a new KLA-led shadow government that is expected to be formed soon - can be sold on the proposal.
Like many who support the plan for autonomy, Drini still clings to a long-term goal of independence.
"You don't have to be smart to see that [autonomy now is a fair deal]," says Drini. "If we make our own institutions, our own government, and our own social structure, we will bring a final decision [on independence] with or without a document."
Drini and his soldiers, who were patrolling the area around the town of Suva Reka, some 35 miles southwest of Pristina, had reason to be pragmatic. Less than a mile away were Serbian police positions - and only two days before two ethnic Albanians had been killed nearby.
International observers, in their orange four-wheel-drive trucks, were busy keeping the two sides separated, for fear that a large-scale battle could jeopardize the peace talks.
"Do you see those mountains?" asked Drini, pointing to a snow-capped peak in the distance. "I lost 100 men there up to now."