The Serbs' war against Kosovo Albanian rebels achieved considerable success in this hilly town set among deserted, burned farms. But the Serbs now are on the defensive and about to give up.

A week ago, Serbian police and soldiers were posted along the roads in this former Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold. Even civilian motorists could drive the winding, scarred and gravelly ribbons south through the valley to Glogovac or west to the 15th-century Devic Monastery.

The police and army are drawing down their forces and mobility is limited. A trip to Devic? Remnants of the police force say, "No one can guarantee your safety." An excursion to Glogovac? "The road could be mined."

The only exit is north through heavily patrolled territory to Gornja Klina and then east to Mitrovica and out of Kosovo into the rest of Serbia.

Terrorized Serbs were packing up and taking that route today. "The terrorists are shooting at night. We know they are coming, everyone knows," said Gragica Podoric, a waitress who was bent on leaving. "We went through a terrible war and all those bombs and we are right back where we were. Even worse."

She and three other residents were trying to get information on the roads' safety. "This war was dirty and the future war will be dirty. Civilians will pay," she said.

Until now, the ethnic Albanians paid most dearly. For a year and a half, Serbian forces assaulted villages around Srbica to uproot the KLA from its supporters. Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians were ruthlessly expelled. The roofless houses are monuments to their suffering. Now the Serbs are preparing to pay the price of defeat in the war with NATO, and by extension, with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"I know I can be shot on my doorstep any time. I am ready. All I wish is that someone will avenge me afterward," said Ljubomir Curovic, a retired Yugoslav Bank branch manager.

As soon as police and army units started drawing down their forces, Serbs began to flee. The pace has quickened with word from Prizren, in the west, and Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, that the rebels have shown themselves in public. The nightly gunfire in Srbica is directed at police in sandbagged bunkers. During the war, the police would aggressively move out from these positions. Now they are paralyzed.

Townspeople said the only hope is that NATO peacekeepers, due to replace the police in the next few days, take on the rebels. "There is a vacuum, so there is panic. The Serbs have lost authority and NATO must take it," said Curovic.

He seemed, for a moment, to buck up enough courage to stay. "I will wait and see. I want to be buried here," he said. But then, word came of a nearby convoy of 40 tractors pulling trailers filled with Serbian families and household possessions. A woman waiting in line for water began to yell, "The terrorists. They are in Prizren and soon will be here!"

A buzz began about radio reports of three KLA murders in Pristina on Monday. "They are even holding press conferences there," said a ragged man who begged for cigarettes.

Curovic reconsidered: "Maybe I will be a fool to stay. Why should I be the only one left?"

CAPTION: Yugoslav soldiers give the Serbian Orthodox salute as they follow a convoy of troops withdrawing around Pristina. Fleeing civilians were not far behind.