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Kosovo rebel force has dwindled to a few armed bands

SHARE Kosovo rebel force has dwindled to a few armed bands

Imer Habibi kept fighting when his relatives fled their Kosovo homes, when comrades fell in battle and when Serbs razed his village. When fellow rebels sold their weapons and left for jobs abroad, he started having doubts.

"I can't blame anybody for leaving," said Habibi, 20, who fled here two weeks ago after a bullet pierced his right hand. "We don't really have any weapons to fight the Serbs anyway. If we don't have some major success in the next month, I don't think I can ever go back."Three months ago, about 3,000 Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas were gathered in northern Albania. From there, they launched attacks against Serbian forces in their fight for independence for Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic.

About 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are Albanian, and most want independence or self-rule.

But after a series of crushing defeats, the rebel force has dwindled to a few bands scattered over northern Albania, according to guerrillas and Western officials based here.

Many rebels have grown discouraged and returned to jobs in Western Europe, which they left when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched his brutal crackdown Feb. 28 on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

So many rebels have sold their rifles to finance trips abroad that the price of Kalashnikov assault rifles here has dropped from $180 in August to $120 today.

Gone is the bravado of a few months ago, after a wave of early guerrilla victories in Kosovo attracted thousands of recruits from ethnic Albanian communities in Western Europe.

"I don't know if our men will be back," said a guerrilla commander who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're not fighting here anymore. Our job now is to try to protect any refugees that cross the border."

Those who remain say it is too dangerous to mount operations across the border because Serb forces have bolstered their defenses. Soon, snowfalls in the mountains that tower along the border will seal off the few remaining infiltration routes until spring.

Western officials here say it is premature to declare an end to the Kosovo rebellion. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the U.S.-led peace process fails to improve the lot of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, rebel ranks could swell again after winter ends.