Just 48 hours after the peaceful handover of eight Serb hostages by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) seemed to have eased tensions, Yugoslav army tanks and artillery were back pounding guerrilla positions in the hills less than 20 miles south of the capital, Pristina.
Speaking in Sarajevo, theNato supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, warned that both sides were building up their forces, and that without a diplomatic breakthrough "in the next six to eight weeks" - as soon as the weather improved - full-scale hostilities could restart.
According to the Serb-run Media Centre in Pristina, at least 15 KLA fighters were killed yesterday in the villages of Racak, Molopolac and Petrovo. Witnesses reported fierce exchanges between KLA snipers and the heavily armed security forces, apparentlyavenging the murder of a Serb policeman earlier this week.
Almost simultaneously, the international monitors who helped to broker the release of the hostages suffered their first casualties since arriving in the Serbian province after last October's ever more precarious ceasefire. Two members of the OSCE Verification Mission, one of them British, were wounded in southwestern Kosovo, but their injuries were not life- threatening, said an OSCE spokesman in Vienna.
The renewed flare-up only underscores the urgency - and also the near- impossibility - of starting political negotiations between the Belgrade authorities and the Kosovo separatists, who are seeking independence for their province, which 10 years ago was stripped of its autonomy by President Slobodan Milosevic. But those talks seem as far away as ever, with the Albanians who make up 90 per cent of the province's population split between the increasingly influential and well-armed KLA, and the political leadership ofIbrahim Rugova, who advocates non-violent methods.
OSCE, with the strong support of Albania itself, is trying to get talks started in Vienna between the various Albanian factions, so that they can present a united front in future negotiations with President Milosevic. If anything, however, positions are polarising, and the conflict is showing signs of broadening into the generalised southern Balkan war that is the nightmare of Western strategists.
Yesterday, Serbia's cabinetmet in Pristina to underline that Belgrade had not the slightest intention of relinquishing control of Kosovo. Even more ominously, the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry issued a harshly worded statement, accusing Albania of encouraging "terrorism". That was sufficient for some Albanian newspapers to claim Yugoslavia was on the point of attacking Albania. Though Belgrade denied this, the threats only increase the likelihood it will send units over the border to attack KLA bases in Albania and choke the flow of weapons back into Serbia proper.Reuse content