Serb forces staged a sweeping push against weakened Albanian separatists Sunday, shelling rebel positions and burning villages just days after President Slobodan Milosevic promised U.S. and European envoys that his brutal attacks had stopped.
The three-front operation seemed designed to drive ethnic Albanian civilians permanently from areas once controlled by the Kosovo Liberation Army and to isolate them in the Drenica region, the hotbed of Albanian resistance. Many refugees fled to Likovac, a desolate hilltop village in the region's heart where high-ranking KLA commanders do business.As Serbs closed in, the scene in Likovac was like a Wild West outpost, full of guns, intrigue and tension. Rebels whispered in the cafe or strode across the dirt square, most of them wearing the usual KLA attire: camouflage, beret and automatic rifle.
Against all odds and evidence, KLA leaders insisted their war for an independent Kosovo province was not over.
"The KLA is not being damaged by Serb attacks but on the contrary is being strengthened," Commander Shaban Shala said, sitting in the cafe. "We are holding territory and getting more."
Even as he spoke, Serb police were burning villages about five miles away. Shellfire booms echoed across the rolling valley below Likovac throughout the weekend, louder and closer with each hit as the Serb offensive reached its eighth day.
For five months, Milosevic has been repelling the KLA's push for independence in Kosovo, a province in the Serb republic that makes up most of Yugoslavia. Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs in the province 9-to-1, have been living under the Milosevic regime since he yanked their autonomy in 1989.
Recent fighting has driven tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes, despite appeals from humanitarian organizations and U.S. envoy Christopher Hill that Serbs stop targeting civilians.
Over and over, refugees on the road to Likovac gave the same description of how Serb police methodically destroyed their villages - shooting to drive people out, looting houses, emptying gallon jugs of gasoline and setting the houses on fire.
"The burned everything," said Hamdi Doci, fleeing with his wife and four children.
Back in the cafe, one KLA fighter was despondent that rebels were unable to protect the villages. "We have good hearts," he said. "But we are under armed and we cannot defend" the people.
While the Serbs have tanks, heavy artillery and rocket launchers, the KLA only has automatic rifles, said the fighter. He refused to give his name for fear of angering a KLA leadership secretive about the structure, number and power of its ranks.
The Serb operation started after rebels tried to take the town of Orahovac. Since then, their defeat has been sweeping: Last week, Serbs drove the KLA from two strategic roads and two strong-holds.
In the current fighting, Kosovo officials said eight Albanians were killed in Drenica; Serb officials claimed two police dead on another front, Prilep near the Albanian border.
For weeks, U.S. envoy Hill has been trying to persuade the KLA to unite with ethnic Albanian politicians in talks with Serbs on the future of Kosovo. Politicians say they will accept autonomy as a first step, but the KLA has insisted it will accept nothing less than immediate independence.
One KLA faction says it is fighting for a "Greater Albania" which would entail redrawing borders to absorb Albanian-majority parts of Macedonia and Montenegro.
Hill was brought to the rebel's fenced, brick offices in Likovac last week by ethnic Albanian politicians with close KLA ties. Since the meeting with KLA leaders, the rebels have been weighing whether to join politicians in a coalition that would form the basis for a negotiating team with the Serbs.
Kosovo politicians say the KLA should give its approval this week. Some KLA fighters said an announcement would come "soon" but none indicated they were anywhere near sacrificing their independence goal.
After this weekend, the KLA may not have a choice. A leading ethnic Albanian politician said the KLA missed its chance to really negotiate and is too weak to do anything but enter talks. The politician spoke on condition of anonymity.
Early Sunday, several KLA supporters ran to Likovac from a nearby village to evaluate the fighting.
"We have to keep fighting, because our cause is just," said a man who gave his name as Den. "But it's all over now. Everything is gone, houses burned, women and children killed." Shells blasted in the distance.