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Ragtag Kosovo army defends home

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About a dozen men waited in a run-down restaurant at the edge of town, reloading their assault rifles and joking nervously as mortar shells exploded outside and bullets ricocheted down the empty street.

One was a young track star, another his former coach; their commander was a writer and former political prisoner."When it's a question of existence, you have to do it," said Lume Hagjiu, a 40-year-old author of eight books of poetry, sweating in his heavy camouflage uniform and gripping a worn Kalashnikov. "But I hate the war."

For weeks, Serbs trying to wipe out the Kosovo Liberation Army have targeted villages along Kosovo's border with Albania, aiming to seal off the secessionist province and prevent an influx of new arms and fighters.

One of the biggest villages still controlled by the KLA along the border, Junik is fighting back with everything it's got, determined to keep its border open.

None of the men in Junik, about five miles from the border, relished the fighting Monday, which began at midafternoon and lasted about 90 minutes.

But they were used to it. Serb forces positioned on the surrounding high ground have opened fire almost every day since the first attack on May 29, killing five villagers and wounding at least 10, they said.

The buildings show some of the battle scars: The roof of one house was destroyed; another house had a hole blown in the side.

"The first day was very difficult - all the families and children were here," said Gani Shehu, another KLA commander. Serb forces hit them with guns, grenades and mortars - "everything they had."

But the town of 12,000 knew what was coming and got ready, with help from the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Most of the town's women, children and elderly have fled, some to Albania, some to safer villages. A third group of about 1,000 are trapped in the hills, the commanders say, surrounded by Serbs and unable to cross the border, which was sealed last week by the Yugoslav army.

On June 15, Serb forces shot at those refugees from helicopters. It's not clear what casualties they suffered, Shehu says.

About 4,000 people remain in the village, mostly men of fighting age, all with guns. All say they're willing to lay down their lives to defend their homes and win Kosovo's freedom from Serbia.

Junik hasn't had electricity for two months, and food is running out. The men have started slaughtering farm animals left behind.

"Better we eat them than let the Serbs shoot them," Hagjiu says.