A GROUP of gunmen from the Kosovo Liberation Army, some in uniform, others in black leather jackets, bundled a blood-stained man into a dark Renault saloon with an EU sticker on the back.
He clutched a turquoise towel to staunch the blood seeping from a bandage around his head, his blue shell-suit bottoms and anorak suggesting he was, as the soldiers said, a civilian. "He was going to get his cattle when there was heavy firing," said Molja, the patrol leader. "He's not KLA."
Despite the signing yesterday of yet another Balkan deal - this time President Slobodan Milosevic formally agreed to allow 2,000 unarmed monitors into Kosovo - optimism was thin on the ground in the rebellious province. Police and heavily armed soldiers were rather more in evidence, despite a Nato demand that most of the Yugoslav forces be withdrawn by last night.
In Brussels yesterday, Nato ambassadors gave Mr Milosevic another 10 days to comply with UN demands and extended the "activation order" keeping the Nato air armada on stand-by. A four-day grace period was due to run out this morning.
Nato sources said the American U2 spyplane could be flying over Kosovo today in a demonstration mission ahead of the air verification campaign that has already been agreed.
In Kosovo, paramilitary police in royal-blue camouflage lolled around outside posts established in abandoned houses, tending fires, fetching water and drinking Coca-Cola. At the edge of a wood on a ridge overlooking a main road through the rolling fields west of Pristina, soldiers at an army camp appeared to be armed with a tank and at least one mobile surface- to-air missile launcher - no doubt a precautionary measure should Nato fulfil its threat of air strikes.
Few of those Nato intended to help have much faith in the threat, nor in the compromise that will see the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe sending monitors to the region. Their job is to ensure that Serb forces in the region no longer threaten the civilian, and mainly Albanian, population. The hope is that their presence will encourage tens of thousands of refugees living in plastic tent cities in the wooded hills to return to their burnt-out villages.
"If it was safe we would go back to our village - but only if it was safe," said Ganimete Nuhaj, a young wife sitting on her make-shift doorstep under a plastic awning. She lives with her husband and six of his relatives, including two children, in a tent built of plastic stretched across a wooden frame, insulated with rugs and blankets and furnished with a wooden cradle. About 2,500 people share similar conditions in the camp tucked into wooded hillside of the Kisna Reke gorge.
"We are having a hard time here. I have to carry a lot of water, and it's pretty heavy when there is cooking to be done in the rain, because the oven is outside," she said. "The worst is the cold and rain - and there are a lot of snakes and mice." The last point was punctuated by the arrival of a small boy with the lifeless form of an an 18in snake draped over a stick.
On Thursday night the camp heard the sounds of shelling, undermining further (if possible) people's faith in the international response.
"Possibilities for these monitors are very limited," Ganimete said. "They won't be able to defend us if we come under some kind of threat. They will only be able to watch."
A few miles away, in territory controlled by the KLA, one family was a little more hopeful. In the village of Trdovc, past the fortified police post, dozens of people were milling around the roadside market (selling bags of apples, shoes, cigarettes and foam mattresses patterned in pink roses). There is an aid distribution point (900kg of flour for about 300 families, and perhaps a dozen cardboard boxes marked Food Gift from the People of the United States of America).
Outside, Elheme Gashi waited in a horse-drawn cart with her 18-month- old baby Arbnor, fat and cuddly but feverish. His mother brought him in for an injection, but Dr Gani Halilaj had no needles. He holds surgery in a bare room, the metal washstand filled with soapy water, the shelves sadly free of useful medicine. He sees 150 to 200 patients every day but says he can do little for most of them.
In another valley, the rebel gunmen sent off their Renault to a KLA field hospital but they doubt that much can be done there for the man wounded by gunfire. "This happens every day," Molja said. "Machine-guns sometimes and sometimes grenades."
Would the monitors be able to stop the fighting? The KLA gunmen laughed out loud. "I don't know. I don't believe they will do anything," Molja said.
"The only solution for Kosovo is independence." But that is not a scenario that appeals to any of the deal-makers in the Balkans, Serb or Western.
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