Kosovo Liberation Army officer Hekuran Hoda was not listening to a news conference here at which a British general said, "I very much trust that the conflict is absolutely over." At his headquarters on the outskirts of the Kosovo town of Djakovica, he was listening instead to the sound of exploding Yugoslav artillery shells -- one every five minutes.
The gunfire -- clearly audible over a satellite phone line -- came at the end of a day of skirmishing between Hoda's guerrilla unit and Yugoslav army troops that included several hours of close combat in which, according to Hoda, three government soldiers were killed. It was not a fight Hoda wanted, but one that exemplifies the risks confronting NATO peacekeepers as they move into Kosovo in coming days.
The guerrilla leadership in Tirana, Albania, called on its forces Wednesday to hold their positions in Kosovo -- and their fire -- during the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops and Serbian police units. But many years have passed since Kosovo was a place where matters could be neatly resolved by the declarations of political leaders -- on any side.
The KLA, a secessionist ethnic Albanian force that has battled Belgrade government forces for nearly 18 months, is not a party to Wednesday's troop withdrawal agreement between NATO and the Yugoslav military. But with thousands of armed guerrillas already in Kosovo, and with many more poised to enter from northern Albania, the rebel force already has become a major factor in shaping Kosovo's future.
Few Kosovo residents would deny that the planned deployment of more than 50,000 NATO peacekeepers there will not dampen appetites for ethnic conflict in the Connecticut-size Serbian province. Said one KLA official, Visar Reke, speaking figuratively: "I have wanted to drive into Kosovo in a NATO tank for the past 10 years."
But the atmosphere in the province will be highly combustible after months of violence, especially as ethnic Albanian refugees return and see firsthand the scale of the destruction inflicted on their homes and property by Yugoslav and Serbian forces. As a result, NATO troops could easily find themselves in confrontation with the Kosovo rebels, should they try to exact revenge.
"We are under no illusions that it's a safe environment," British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, commander of the NATO peacekeeping force, told reporters here today. He warned the guerrillas that "it would be very, very stupid" if they violated the cease-fire as government troops and police pull out.
Hashim Thaqi, the KLA's political leader, reiterated the guerrillas' commitment to the truce at a news conference in Rome today, saying the rebels would not cause any problems for NATO. But, he added, "obviously, we will defend ourselves as necessary" if Yugoslav forces attempt to attack.
By Hoda's account of today's skirmish near Djakovica, in western Kosovo, government troops fired first after sighting seven of his men along on a ridge line, where they were on a reconnaissance mission. The rebels then called in reinforcements, and the battle began.
The challenge for NATO peacekeepers will be to respond appropriately at such moments, according to Western officials, and to apportion blame fairly in cases when Serbs and ethnic Albanians -- many of whom are itching to settle scores -- blunder into conflict. Rebels also reported scattered clashes today around the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, and Yugoslav forces were purportedly spotted burning homes in villages in southwestern Kosovo.
But tensions in the province could be aggravated further, according to Western diplomats, by the fact that the KLA has still not settled on what it will become in postwar Kosovo: a national guard, a police force, a political party, or all of these.
According to a Western military officer who knows many KLA commanders, the rebels were shocked by Western insistence at a February peace conference in France that they commit to a general demilitarization -- a requirement repeated today in a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized deployment of the peacekeeping force. "It was due to poor preparation" for the talks by diplomats, the officer said.
Since then, the group has toyed with the idea of transforming itself into a heavily armed police force for the newly autonomous province of Kosovo or of becoming a national guard. "They keep raising these ideas and bouncing them around; we tell them that it won't work, and they go back to the drawing board," the Western officer said.
He said "it is [based on] a genuine anxiety about a Yugoslav force coming over the border" when NATO troops eventually depart. As a result, the rebel group has indicated it will maintain training camps in northern Albania so its members can keep up their military skills, an objective that the West "wouldn't be able to do anything about" because the area is essentially lawless and because there is no agreement on border crossings between NATO and the Albanian government.
Reke, the KLA official, is optimistic that any such questions will be resolved to the West's satisfaction. "What we want to do is to see the back of the Serbian forces and organize as big a welcoming party as possible for NATO," he said. "Then we can talk about everything." But, he added, "We are not going to give up weapons until we see NATO everywhere," and even after that some rebels intend to "remain in the barracks" -- under foreign supervision if necessary.
Sokol Bashota, a senior KLA political officer, also said that he expects armed KLA units to remain for a time at five or six sites in Kosovo. "We have the hope of creating the military academies of a normal army," he said. Asked if this means the KLA will attempt to retain its role as a fighting force in Kosovo or become a police force, Bashota said: "The police force will be a police force, and the army will be an army."
In the immediate aftermath of Belgrade's ruthless purgation of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Bashota said, the demand that the group lay down its weapons "is really a choice we have to make later."
CAPTION: KLA leader Hashim Thaqi meets Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini in Rome.