Trading blows as Kosovo wanes

Revenge, mutual provocation cited as motives for Serb shellings, rebelstrikes as March 15 talks near.

Zatije Spahije sits on a small pile of hay and shakes with fear as occasional mortar blasts reverberate through these snow-capped mountains on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia.

Ms. Spahije, an ethnic Albanian, fled an attack on her nearby village two days ago and is waiting in a makeshift refugee camp for humanitarian aid that will arrive an hour later.

"The Serbs were [half a mile] behind," she says, recounting her escape from the village of Gajre. "We were running from the bullets.... We're afraid that the Serbs will come and massacre us."

Spahije's tale is indicative of a steady level of fighting that continues in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo.

Though international officials admit that most of the violence is of a low intensity, they fear it could escalate and possibly derail the scheduled March 15 resumption of peace talks in France.

Since the closing last week of an inconclusive conference between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, there have been several deaths per day in Kosovo and almost constant movement of heavy armament. Observers say the Serbian forces are at their highest number since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to a cease-fire in October.

The 'most dangerous time'

The ongoing fighting - for which observers are having difficulties pinning blame because of possible deception on both sides - shows neither side is exhausted from battle. It also underscores the risk international peacekeeping troops could face if they go in.

"This has been a busy period," says Michel Maisonneuve, a regional supervisor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the unarmed group in charge of monitoring. "I think this week is the most dangerous time. Either party could take the opportunity to destabilize the region and make the other look like the culprit."

On March 2 in Orahovac, the southwestern city still recovering from heavy summer fighting, the OSCE was trying to talk the Serbian forces out of launching an offensive after the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) kidnaped two Serb men Feb. 27. One was later released, the other executed.

The Serbs are also building their forces near the Macedonian border, where the KLA is accused of the Feb. 28 killing of a Serbian police commander and the wounding of four others. The Serbs responded by attacking nearby villages, which sent hundreds of refugees like Spahije running for the border and the hills.

Also on Feb. 28, the one-year anniversary of the armed conflict, one member of the KLA was apparently killed in a police attack near the western city of Djakovica, and another ethnic Albanian was gunned down while entering his car in a cafe district in downtown Pristina.

While they are fighting, both sides are expected to consider a political settlement that would grant Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian population broad autonomy - and allow some 28,000 NATO troops to police the region.

Kosovo is in Serbia, the dominant republic of what remains of Yugoslavia.

The Albanians, who are thought likely to accept the plan, have reservations about giving up their arms and approving anything short of independence. However, with the resignation March 2 of the KLA's most hard-line political leader, Adem Demaci, it is likely that the moderates will hold sway.

The Serbs, who call Kosovo the cradle of their culture, remain unwilling to allow foreign troops on their soil.

Diplomats and international observers worry that, if today's violence becomes tomorrow's all-out war, either side could radicalize its demands and jeopardize future talks.

But unlike previous fighting in Kosovo, which at times was much heavier than it is now, the recent skirmishes have been difficult for international monitors to assess. Most of the shelling has taken place at night, when roads are considered too dangerous to travel.

Fueling desire for a settlement?

Now, officials say, the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army forces are not necessarily advancing fronts as much as they are waging a war of fear. They also appear to be strengthening strategic positions, as at the Macedonian border, to prepare for a possible conflict with a greater force like NATO.

"This is downright intimidation and harassment," says Sandy Blythe, a spokesman for the OSCE in the provincial capital of Pristina.

On the other side, some of the killings that are being pinned on the KLA may be better viewed as personal acts of revenge than politically motivated actions, says Mr. Blythe. Some ethnic Albanians in this impoverished region still hold fast to a centuries-old tradition of blood revenge, which is only reinforced by a general breakdown of the region's security structure.

"There are very likely to be a number of scores to be settled," says one Western official. "You can argue that, before a relative rule of law returns to the region, there will continue to be [violence] in this fashion."

Furthermore, officials warn that either side may be staging attacks. Ethnic Albanians have accused the Serbs of disguising themselves as KLA fighters and international monitors.

When he visited Kosovo Feb. 29 to build support for the peace plan, US diplomat Christopher Hill said that, while the fighting ran the risk of threatening the talks, it could also have the positive effect of convincing both sides of the necessity of a political solution.

"Anytime [people are killed] it obviously affects the mood," he said. "But I hope it makes people understand the need for a political settlement."

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