`We will fight until our last soldier dies'

WAR RAGES in the hills nearby, but Kosovo's guerrilla leader is relaxed and hospitable. Sitting at home beside his wood-burning stove, Suleyman Selimi is giving his first interview to foreign journalists since being named chief commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) last month.

He was chosen for the top job as his old friend Hashim Thaci, known as commander "Snake", was being chosen to lead the Albanian delegation to the Rambouillet peace talks and again in Paris, where the KLA has agreed to sign the two-part peace deal.

The situation, Mr Selimi admits, is bad for the KLA. Recently it has been forced out of several villages in the Shala region, east of the its Drenica stronghold. But he does not seem unduly worried by the losses. "We are going to keep our positions and we are going to look after the civilians who have left those hills," says Mr Selimi, who is known as commander "Sultan".

Sultan is no intellectual but he is revered by the KLA for his bravery. He says that, despite the dissent of a senior KLA commander - known as "Remi" - in the northern Podujevo region, the Kosovo rebels are united in support of the Western-backed peace plan for the province.

"There will always be someone who behaves as an extremist, but it's a small group and I don't see it as a problem," he says.

Asked about the proposed disarmament of the rebels, which worries many junior KLA officers, Sultan is sanguine. "If the Serb forces withdraw, we will not need our weapons any more," he says. "It was never our desire to take up weapons and fight."

And Mr Selimi, who was a student at the University in Mitrovica before taking up arms, has no desire to hold office in an autonomous and peaceful Kosovo. "When I started to fight, I didn't know I would live for so long," he says. "I have been in danger many times, and I thought I was not going to survive."

In a free Kosovo, "I am not going to hold any post. I want to be a free civilian, and for my people to have full human rights."

The KLA chief believes that the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, will eventually sign the peace deal. "If they see Nato is serious, they are going to accept everything in the end," he says. But, "We are going to stay here and if they come, we will fight. And we will fight until our last soldier dies."