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Kosovo Rebellion Shows Signs of More Pacifist Tilt

Rebels, battered by Serbs, now find ethnic Albanians looking for a conciliatory leader.

The armed rebels who once guarded the gateway to this village in central Kosovo have quietly slipped into the hills.

Their rebel checkpoint, set up months ago to prevent Serbian infiltration, has been replaced by two boys selling goods from a roadside stand.

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It was not the Serbs who drove the Kosovo Liberation Army away but local ethnic Albanians, who say they are beginning to see the KLA as a magnet for danger.

"The people made us leave," says a winded KLA soldier after he scurries from a nearby farmhouse to flag down a passing car.

A month into a crushing offensive by forces of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian Interior Ministry, the KLA has been marginalized, not only here in Likosane, but in international diplomatic circles, where the focus of negotiations has shifted back to mainstream ethnic Albanian political leaders.

US diplomats, who are spearheading international peace efforts between the Serbs and separatist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, have for the moment abandoned the KLA in favor of pacifist ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Like the KLA, Mr. Rugova favors independence. But he is seen as being more likely to compromise and accept internationally supported plans for broad autonomy within Yugoslavia.

The US strategy, diplomatic sources say, is to build momentum with a Rugova-backed negotiating team and hope the KLA joins at a later time.

On Tuesday the Kosovo Albanians' team rejected an offer by the Serbs to begin talks immediately, saying Serb attacks must first cease. Yesterday the European Union's human rights commissioner, Emma Bonino, toured refugee areas.

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MEANWHILE, some 1,700 NATO troops are conducting exercises in neighboring Albania. But armed intervention in Kosovo seems unlikely, with Western powers emphasizing that a diplomatic solution is preferable.

In Likosane, once a KLA stronghold, there are signs that the US strategy may be working. Although the KLA still has a presence here, villagers seem more concerned with caring for refugees than parading around with machine guns.

"The KLA should be under the control of Rugova, just as the international community wants," says Sahit Zymeri, calling himself the village's leader. "We've prepared a letter of support for Rugova and will send it to him soon."

It was here in Likosane that the six-month-old conflict began, when Serbian troops attacked on Feb. 28 and killed 24 ethnic Albanians, some of whom were clearly civilians.

Today, with more than 400 dead and an estimated 231,000 internal refugees across Kosovo, villagers in Likosane have focused on survival. More than 100 refugees are crammed into the local school building.

"Many of the children are sick," says Sinan Simanaj, a refugee from the nearby village of Acarevo who was overseeing the makeshift camp. He says the homes of most of the refugees were destroyed during the recent Serbian offensive, in which the rebels lost almost all of the land they once held.

Not far away, a white four-wheel-drive truck barrels over the bumpy dirt roads. It stops to pull over a visitor's car, and the truck's driver, a bearded KLA commander, questions journalists - but not with the bravado that the KLA used to have.

The Serbs have rolled through the region in the past month and part of their mission has been to crush civilian support for the guerrillas. They have done so by burning buildings, destroying crops, and killing farm animals.

Politically, the KLA has recently thrown in its lot with Adem Demaci, a fringe politician who has the reputation of being more a critic than a leader.

Mr. Demaci, a political prisoner for nearly three decades, has been a longtime rival of Rugova. But he has never been able to garner the support of the populace or the international community.

While Rugova has consistently stood behind a nonviolent approach, Demaci has at times espoused armed resistance.

The Serbs, led by Slobodan Milosevic, revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. Since then they have controlled the region's 2 million people as if Kosovo were a military state. It was not until this year that the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority took up arms.

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