MALISEVO, Yugoslavia (AP) _ A heavy silence pervades the dead zone at the center of Kosovo's suspended war, where only packs of wild dogs and fear thrive.

Suddenly a lone figure in a black beret appears in the rubble of the decimated ghost town, tracked intently by a gunman in blue on a distant rooftop.

The ethnic Albanian refugee feels the Serb sniper's gaze but averts his eyes as he trudges through a nightmarish landscape of charred, smashed buildings.

``Even if they kill me, I had to see my hometown again,'' 72-year-old Adem Mazreku says, gesturing to the police base where a tank barrel aims menacingly at the town. ``But as long as they are here, we won't come back.''

Malisevo, a key strategic town in the Drenica region that is the heartland of Kosovo's separatist rebels, has become a focal point of unsuccessful diplomacy to settle the conflict in the Serbian province.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is a ``symbol of fear'' among tens of thousands of displaced people _ a stark reminder that all is not well in Kosovo regardless of the absence of combat.

Despite a two-month-old truce, a Serb-Albanian standoff over the eerie town remains unresolved. Many fear it will provide the spark to ignite new fighting across Kosovo by spring.

Located 25 miles southwest of the capital Pristina, Malisevo was the main stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army when Serbian police overran it in July, sending 3,000 residents fleeing ahead of a scorched-earth offensive.

Diplomats and humanitarian officials have pressed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw police from their fortress here in order to facilitate the ethnic Albanians' return to their homes.

But Milosevic has refused. Daily patrols of Serb armored vehicles and truckloads of gun-toting policemen through area villages send children scurrying.

The Serbs maintain the police contingent is necessary to prevent the KLA from reclaiming Malisevo. They reject the rebels' demand that they withdraw _ and international diplomats acknowledge that their presence does not violate the October agreement, as the guerrillas claim.

``Police will remain stationed in Malisevo regardless of the KLA's request,'' said a senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``Nowhere in the world should police withdraw on terrorists' demand.''

Barely two miles away, KLA fighters walk around openly in the village of Dragobilje. Several guard the entrance to a low-slung compound where rows of black combat boots line the doorway _ a rebel command post.

``These activities must stop,'' says Daja Cet, a stern-faced local KLA commander. ``Only Albanians live in this area. Their patrols are a provocation.''

The potential for explosive incidents is so high that international monitors have begun accompanying police on their rounds, producing the unlikely sight of U.S. armored cars leading Serb convoys.

The Americans' decision, made after two Serb policemen were killed while delivering supplies to Malisevo, raised eyebrows among some European diplomats.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is taking over monitoring duties in the area, says the idea is to avoid further abuses by the Serbs, not assist them.

``They're there to verify that the police patrol behaves in a manner that's in line with the cease-fire agreement, and not harassment of the local population,'' OSCE spokesman Duncan Bullivant said.

A team of British verifiers hopes to further discourage violence by moving into a house in abandoned Malisevo.

In the meantime, few dare linger there.

Neighboring villages, packed with Malisevo's displaced, were buzzing with alarm in recent days after reports that a Serb sniper fired from the police station at two people who were trying to move out of their damaged homes.

Still, every day a handful of people cautiously make their way through the wreckage of broken glass, chunks of bricks, and splintered wood to visit their former homes.

For many, it is a matter not of curiosity but desperation.

Sevdije Mazreku, 22, a neighbor of Adem but no relation, passes him on her way into town and inquires about the danger. Eight months pregnant with her fourth child, she has made the long walk from another village in order to fetch belongings left behind in panic last summer.

``I'm very afraid, but I had to come back,'' she says. ``I have no other way to get clothes for my children.''

Timidly escorting visitors to her still-intact house, which she also visited earlier this fall, she surveys the damage sadly. Family photos of smiling children remain on the wall, but clothes are heaped in a pile, mattresses are rotting and the TV, the VCR, furniture and jewelry are missing.

She and six other people, including her children, now subsist in the damp basement of a house _ miserable conditions, but safer than Malisevo.

At mention of her coming baby, she puts a hand on her belly and smiles plaintively.

``Who can be happy giving birth to a baby in the middle of a war,'' she asks, ``without even basic necessities?''