AS "EXERCISES" go, it was frighteningly life-like: hundreds of Yugoslav soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery pieces and mortars, ranged along the top of a ridge west of Vucitrn. They were not friendly, but allowed us to pass as we followed an orange armoured car belonging to the Kosovo Verification Mission.
Yesterday at least two fighters of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were reported killed near Vucitrn, and the head of the international monitors, William Walker, said the ceasefire agreed last October was "non- existent". Across Kosovo, soldiers, special police and military hardware are on the move, taking up firing positions in the woods and snowy hills and then, a few hours later, returning to barracks.
Monitors and journalists spend hours, days, following these convoys in an attempt to find out exactly what is going on - according to the Yugoslav army it is "winter training". But the analysts with the KVM are deeply sceptical - as are the KLA fighters, who would dearly like to see the enemy provoke Western air strikes. Many fear that Belgrade's forces are preparing the ground for another offensive, perhaps a land-grab that would enable President Slobodan Milosevic to barter some, but not all, of Kosovo away.
"They are going to go on doing this [driving around] on a daily basis until ..." the monitor paused. "Something." The atmosphere is so tense that many fear an explosion into pitched battle is almost inevitable before the peace delegations re-group in Normandy on 15 March.
The Albanian-majority villages around Vucitrn, a small town north of Pristina, are already empty, thanks to the Serbs' "training manouevres". On Friday, large puffs of smoke rose as the odd shell crashed into villages and fields held by the KLA. Most civilians have now left villages such as Bukos: some 4,000 were newly displaced last week, according to the UN refugee organisation.
"It is not an exercise," said one monitor wryly, watching Yugoslav soldiers walking briskly across a hillside under the cannons of an armoured vehicle. Photographers and KLA rebels in a trench below the ridge-line were interrupted by a burst of gunfire, and had to dive into the mud for cover.
The shellfire was sporadic, for Serbian forces are not overly keen to engage in actual combat. They prefer to shell Albanian villages and force the KLA to withdraw. Last week the Yugoslav forces advanced through Bukos by taking a house here and a barn there.
The Serbian military movement may be intended to provoke the rebels into attacking at a time when the West is still, in theory, committed to striking at the guilty party should the ceasefire break down irrevocably. Around Bukos the KLA fired first on more than one occasion - because they feared an attack was imminent. Monitors say the army may be trying to provoke a larger rebel assault, which would provide an excuse for an all-out offensive and a land seizure that could be cemented by Nato peacekeepers. "The Serbs will try to make an offensive to smash Kosovo and divide it into two pieces," said Drini,a KLA commander north of Prizren, an area of extremely high tension where the two sides are in a state of permanent confrontation. He believes that Belgrade wants to keep a chunk of the province - "to save their mythology and their churches. I don't know what else they want to save, there are no inhabitants".
Mr Milosevic, according to the guerrilla commander, aims to snatch the industrial and mineral assets concentrated north of Pristina and leave the farmland in the west for the two million Albanians who make up more than 90 per cent of Kosovo's population.
The Serbian president, who first won international notoriety for a viciously nationalistic speech in Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, in 1989, will no doubt try to hold on to the plain, the site of an important battle against Ottoman armies some 600 years earlier. Serbian nationalism eulogises it as a glorious defeat - a bad precedent for a war that is doomed to failure but looks certain to drag on.
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