All quiet on the Kosovo front as Serbian policemen watch and wait

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The Independent Online
THE TIPS of five cigarettes glow in the pitch darkness of a Serbian police observation post in central Kosovo. This is "ground zero" in the conflict between Serbian government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting for independence.

Nato bombing of Serb positions, which could be just days away, seems remote to the five policemen - all Serbs from Kosovo - squatting below the top-floor window-line of this unfinishedbuilding west of Malisevo.

They chain-smoke and make small talk while struggling to keep warm. Blankets are draped along the walls to block the cold. Plastic sheeting provides a makeshift roof against the weather.

When asked about Nato and the fact that the West is gearing up to pound Yugoslavia because of its actions in Kosovo, one policeman replies: "That's all crap. When you look at it objectively there's no reason for air strikes. Anyway, that's not our problem. We have to keep a watch for the terrorists and let the politicians sort this out."

The crack of a single rifle shot jolts everyone into action. Men scramble, preparing to return fire. Flares are fired to illuminate surrounding fields whenever there are suspicious sounds or movements. But the shot is a one- off and the group is soon back at ease.

The Kosovo Liberation Army announced a ceasefire recently pending Nato action. That step has meant a substantial, but not complete, reduction of hostilities in this southern Serbian province.

"Malisevo district was completely ethnic Albanian before the fighting started. We didn't even have police stationed here because every time we came in there was trouble," said one of the men at the post.

"This town was a real KLA stronghold until we captured it in August. The KLA is still out there, but now they're just small units dispersed in the forest. They shoot at us occasionally because they want us to know they haven't gone away."

KLA guerrillas had taken nominal control of almost half of Kosovo, including many of its major highways, before Serbian police and Yugoslav army units counter-attacked in June.

Belgrade's three-month offensive pulverised KLA strongholds like Malisevo. Few Western governments objected since they opposed independence for Kosovo. But the government sweep failed to discriminate between military and civilian targets.

More than 250,000 ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes; scores of towns and villages were destroyed, leaving tens of thousands homeless and living rough on hillsides and in the forests.

Against this backdrop, reported massacres of ethnic Albanian civilians have brought Nato to the brink of military intervention to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo and war in the Balkans.

The Serbian police in Malisevo say they would welcome the return of ethnic Albanian women, children and elderly to the town, but that any fighting- age man would have to prove he had not been involved with the KLA or face arrest.

"It's the KLA who's not allowing the people to return to their homes, not us." said the major commanding the Serbian police detachment. "The KLA wants the world to think that the entire ethnic Albanian population is in danger. They're playing the humanitarian catastrophe card."

But ethnic Albanians point to reports of civilian massacres and insist that only a fool would return to an area controlled by Serbian forces.