Commander Haxhiu (a nom de guerre) sits at his command center in the village of Dobrosin in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley. A large Albanian flag, with its black double-headed eagle on a red background, hangs on the wall. On his desk lies a rocket shell, which he says Serbian security forces fired into an ethnic Albanian village.
Mr. Haxhiu considers himself a freedom fighter, fighting for the land he and some 70,000 other ethnic Albanians occupy along with an estimated 30,000 Serbs. "Every nation deserves to be free," he says. "As long as Serb forces abuse civilians and deny us basic rights, we will continue to defend our legitimate claim to freedom."
To Serbian officials, however, the bearded, camouflage-uniformed commander is a terrorist. And to NATO, he's part of an extremist movement that threatens Balkan stability, fueling attacks in Kosovo and in the neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as well.
Unlike Kosovo - which has been under United Nations administration since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign - Presevo isn't a separate province.
But like Kosovo, the overwhelming majority of its citizens are ethnic Albanians, with bitter memories of a decade under former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. Many have relatives living inside Kosovo or regularly travel to work there.
For the estimated 2,000 fighters with the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, known by its Albanian acronym, UCPMB, the goal is clear: first to unite with Kosovo, and ultimately to secede from Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
It's an ambition Belgrade utterly rejects, although the new democratic government of President Vojislav Kostunica last month outlined a plan to end hostilities.
On Tuesday, NATO officials repeated their insistence that the two sides begin negotiations. After a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said ethnic Albanian rebels should understand: "This is not the time to start a new conflict in Europe."
In a boost to the Yugoslav government, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson praised its reconciliation plan and said NATO was "prepared to implement a phased and conditioned reduction" of the buffer zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
The zone, a 120-mile-long, 3-mile-wide strip, was established at the end of the NATO bombing campaign to separate the Serbian Army and NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. Lord Robertson said that alliance ministers were concerned it was being used as "a safe haven for extremist activities."
Yesterday, a Serbian government-run media center in Bujanovac, on the edge of the buffer zone, reported a Serbian policeman was injured during clashes with ethnic Albanian rebels. The unrest came hours before a NATO delegation was due for talks with Serbian officials on narrowing the buffer zone.
Such incidents have occurred almost every day for more than two weeks, according to American soldiers policing the Kosovo side of the buffer zone. Three Serbian policemen were killed Feb. 18 when their vehicle hit two antitank mines.
In Shoshaj, a tiny mountain village, almost every house was damaged in a four-hour battle Feb. 10. Qani Zeqiri points out 15 holes in the walls of his home. "What the Serbs are doing is wrong," he says. "For 10 years they treated us like dogs, now they want to exterminate us. They are not even supposed to be here."
In Macedonia, meanwhile, another NATO delegation was expected to arrive yesterday for talks in the capital, Skopje. The government - a fragile coalition of Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties - blames NATO for failing to stop what it says are incursions by ethnic Albanian extremists from Kosovo, including a group that seized control of a border village.
Back in Presevo, Haxhiu, the rebel commander, is clear about unity with Kosovo. "We are one people, no matter the borders, and we stand together, live together, and die together," he says. Many UCPMB fighters are former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the officially disbanded rebel group that fought oppressive Serb rule.
Under the peace proposal endorsed by the Serbian Parliament in February, both sides would withdraw their forces and replace them with mixed Serbian and ethnic Albanian police patrols. The buffer zone would be reduced or eliminated.
Wide-ranging economic development programs, including rebuilding damaged houses and improving infrastructure, would then be instituted in the impoverished region.
While international diplomats have praised the initiative, the UCPMB and local political representatives call it "unacceptable."
Demilitarizing, they note, would take place under the auspices of Serbian security forces now barred from the buffer zone. There are no guarantees for the protection of basic rights.
Serbian officials say the issues of autonomy within Yugoslavia or secession will not be on the table. And Belgrade insists on the right to use force against the guerrillas if negotiations fail.
"We have been fighting, and fighting hard, since 1945, but negotiations have gotten us nowhere," says UCPMB volunteer Sefer Arifi.
Mr. Arifi, in his late 60s, joined up after being detained and harassed by police while going to the market with his daughter and grandchildren. "I decided I would rather die fighting than sitting at home, afraid of knocks at my door," he says.
While Commander Haxhiu says he personally would support serious negotiating efforts, he adds, "These are the same guys, the same strategy of war. They are making peace plans while attacking us on the ground, do you honestly think we can trust them?"
Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society