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Specter of ethnic warfare looms in Kosovo

At noon a convoy of a dozen cars, carrying men with faces painted black and red, wound its way through the streets of this city. The automatic assault rifles cradled in their arms poked through the windows as stunned onlookers gawked.

"This is a warning that if we continue to ask for independence, we will die," said a 37-year-old woman who watched the cars pass and asked to remain unidentified. "The only thing the Serbs offer us now is terror."The Balkans have been revisited by the dark specter of ethnic warfare, complete with masked paramilitaries unleashed by the Serbian state and accountable to no one for their actions; Serbian soldiers and policemen who surround villages and blast away with cannons, leaving civilians dead; and a state-run media campaign seemingly intended to whip up hatred among Serbs against another ethnic group. To round off the sadly familiar scenario, European diplomats and Washington are arguing over what to do about a crisis it may be too late to solve.

"The red lights were flashing in Kosovo for a decade," a European diplomat said, "but nobody bothered to act. The situation, as we saw in Bosnia at the start of the war, has deteriorated so rapidly that there is little, short of outside intervention, that will stop a war. Kosovo is lost."

The fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army, who issued a statement this week denouncing a negotiated settlement of the separatist struggle, saunter through villages with a cockiness, and often belligerence, that borders on the suicidal. As their ranks swell, and as weapons come by pack mule over the border from Albania, there is a dangerous belief among the rebels that an independent Kosovo is just months away. In Kosovo 90 percent of the 2 million people are ethnic Albanians.

"We know what we are doing," a rebel fighter on the road near the village of Lausa said. "We are getting fighters with experience into Kosovo. We are getting organized. We will be a real army."