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Rebel Rebound Clouds a Deal

Serb-Kosovar skirmishes threaten US-brokered peace. NATO wants Serbs out by Oct. 27, and rebels to hold fire.

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Armed rebels patrol the dirt roads in this cluster of villages in central Kosovo. Two elite soldiers, from a group called the Black Tigers, strut near a roadside store, their berets low over their eyes and their guns slung over their shoulders.

Shaban Shala, a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), sits on a bench. Hugging a machine gun, he scans the crowd that has gathered to see him.

"When we see houses burned, when we see the killing of innocent people [and] families separated, it makes us stronger than ever before," says Mr. Shala.

In places like Obrinje, Yugoslavia, site of two massacres three weeks ago, the KLA is back - patrolling roads, guarding food-distribution centers, and sometimes exchanging fire with the Serbs.

Members of the rebel group say they have come far since absorbing heavy defeats over the past three months. New guerrilla tactics seem to be paying off.

But their timing does not bode well for efforts to bring a cease-fire to Kosovo. Serb forces were meant to have mostly withdrawn from the region by Oct. 27, under an agreement between US envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The KLA was meant to have stood by its own cease-fire.

The rebels had declared a unilateral cease-fire in recent weeks as a way of putting pressure on the Serb leadership to agree to a withdrawal.

Now the West finds itself weighing evidence of renewed Serb force against evidence that the rebels are exploiting Western pressure on Mr. Milosevic to advance their own fight.

NATO 'not KLA air force'

NATO commander Wesley Clark warned Milosevic to stop attacks - new shelling was reported Tuesday afternoon - and Milosevic said yesterday he remains committed to the peace agreement despite what he called "terrorist" attempts to sabotage it.

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