Kosovo waits in hope and fear for air strikes

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AT A TINY village in an area of central Kosovo still beyond the reach of the Serbian security forces, a Kosovo Liberation Army officer had just come back from patrol - on horseback. This, he explained, was the best way to travel over the hills and stay out of reach of the police. "We move right through their lines and they never see us."

A month ago, however, he was patrolling in a four wheel drive vehicle. The new mode of transport reflected the straitened circumstances of the KLA, which has suffered a series of defeats at the hands of Yugoslav forces.

The KLA declared a ceasefire on Friday, a tactic designed to encourage the West to press ahead with its threatened air strikes. "We want to get out of the way so Nato can do its job," one of the senior figures who wrote the declaration told me. The officer on the horse is still patrolling, although with strict orders not to initiate hostilities. He goes out to look at his house, a mile or so away, which has now been turned into a police post.

Half an hour later, I was drinking Sljivovica plum brandy in that house with the Serbians who had taken up residence. They said they had been attacked by the KLA almost every night in the week running up to the ceasefire and did not place much faith in its promises.

Diplomats in Kosovo say there are still far too many police on the ground for Belgrade to be in compliance with UN resolutions. But Serbs say they cannot be expected to withdraw their forces while facing an active insurgency and that territory vacated under threat of air strikes will be taken up by the KLA.

The Serbian administrator in the nearby town of Malisevo, Miodrag Malisic, sat under a portrait of President Milosevic, his office surrounded by sandbags and fortifications. He said he wanted refugees to come back. Including families loyal to the KLA? "We would allow them back only if they hand in their weapons and if they did not participate in terrorist activities, if they did not have blood on their hands," he replied. "Nothing will happen to the people unless they did something wrong. But if they broke the law they will have to answer to the state."

This does not augur well for the peace agreement still being sought by frantic shuttle diplomacy. At the start of the conflict here, the West declared: "No more Bosnias". Now there are 50,000 refugees at risk of starving or freezing to death this winter in the hills.

Veton Surroi, the Kosovar politician most trusted by western diplomats as a guide to Albanian thinking, said there was great bitterness at the West for acting so late. "There was a war against civilians during the whole summer and there was no serious attempt by the international community to stop it," he said. "Now something like one in four of the population have been put out of their homes."

But he predicted a last-minute deal would emerge: "Mr Milosevic is a very brave soldier against women and children and unarmed civilians, but once confronted with force, he suddenly has rushes of reason."

Most Serbs are, not surprisingly, horrified at the prospect of Nato attacks. Air raid sirens are being tested; some people are constructing air raid shelters in their cellars while others are trying to send children abroad. They are dismayed that, once again, Serbia is being treated as an international pariah.

The reason for that is the numerous, well-documented and largely credible atrocity stories coming out of Kosovo. Most of the victims of the past seven months' fighting have been civilians. In village after village, there are gutted houses. In one tiny hamlet high in the mountains, eyewitnesses told me an elderly couple unable to leave their house had been burned alive by the police. In another, refugees told me they'd just buried three bodies, one with the eyes gouged out, another with the ears cut off.

Nor have the atrocities all been on one side. I have met frantic Serbian mothers whose sons have been kidnapped by the KLA, never to be seen again. In the Serbian media centre, they show photographs of two bodies found by the side of the road, both shot at close range, the bodies showing some signs of torture. Each side accuses the other of massacres while dismissing the claims of its enemies.

The desire among Albanians for air strikes is almost universal, even though most fear a backlash by some elements of the security forces. "There will be 48 hours after the bombs fall when no normal rules will apply," said journalist Dukagjin Gorani. "We call it 'the massacre time'."