PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ On one side is an intractable Yugoslav government, executor of a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. On the other is a fractured Albanian community and an army of guerrillas ready to relaunch their war of independence against the Serbs.

In the middle is bespectacled American diplomat Christopher Hill, trying to make peace and avoid being flattened by the Balkan steamroller. So far, Serbs and ethnic Albanians have refused to meet directly, forcing Hill to shuttle back and forth.

As talks drag on into the cold Kosovo winter _ and the prospect of renewed warfare in the spring looms _ chief Albanian negotiator Fehmi Agani says the logic of compromise has found infertile ground.

``There is another solution,'' he says. ``The international community gets sick and tired of these talks and just imposes a settlement. That would be easier.''

To a certain extent, it has already done that. Using the threat of NATO cruise missiles and warplanes, the West forced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown on ethnic Albanians, which killed hundreds, mostly civilians, and displaced some 300,000 people.

Now it is pressing for a negotiated settlement, while keeping NATO poised.

The Serbs have rejected the latest proposal. The Yugoslav government won't consider any arrangement that severs the southern province of Kosovo from Serbia, the largest of the two republics in the Yugoslav federation, and the Albanians won't abandon their demand for independence.

The ethnic Albanians have not been able to rally behind a single leader.

Ibrahim Rugova, whom the international community has settled upon as the ethnic Albanian of choice, is not an inspirational leader and his negotiators, in the eyes of some, are simply out of touch.

Thrown into the mix is the Kosovo Liberation Army, a ragtag band of guerrillas whose brief uprising this year finally drew the world's attention to this corner of the Balkans. It stands ready to sabotage any deal short of independence.

Time is pressing.

``It's not just the spring offensive, or the fraying of the cease-fire, I worry about whether political attitudes will harden still further and whether there will be enough malleability in the clay to sculpture something,'' Hill said. ``I think we are getting pretty hard and crusty right now.''

Adem Demaci, political representative of the KLA, insists the rebels' differences with Rugova are more of style than substance. Both want independence, but the KLA will go to war to get it.

``The KLA is ready to continue to help the peaceful method,'' he said. ``But the KLA is also preparing to fight.''

Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, says the KLA is rearming and reorganizing and that the politicians only have a two- to four-month window of relative calm to come to a deal.

Hill has been trying to draw the KLA into the political process, but its political organization is every bit as vague as its military structure. As the American diplomat put it: ``Searching for the leader of the KLA has been like the search for the Northwest Passage.''

Some KLA commanders in the field think it's too soon to negotiate.

``(Negotiations) should come after the war ends, and the war hasn't finished,'' said Mensur Kasumi, a KLA sub-regional commander who referred to the American negotiator as ``President Hill of Kosovo.''

Veton Surroi, publisher of the Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore, says the problem is that no ethnic Albanian leader has the clear support of the majority in this province of 2 million people.

Nonetheless, Hill recently traveled to the Kosovo countryside with Rugova and says he was struck by his popularity.

``You and I may be underwhelmed, but he is a leader,'' Hill said. Rugova's LDK party is the only real, structured political force.

The latest draft of Hill's peace plan would set most power at the municipal level, leaving the rest to the Yugoslav federation and omitting any mention of Serbia. It was rejected by the Serbs, who came back with their own plan.

They want to make sure that Serbs in Kosovo, about 10 percent of the population, are never ruled by ethnic Albanians

``There is no solution for Kosovo if the area is excluded for Serbian authorities,'' said Ratko Markovic, a Serb delegation leader. ``In state territory, nobody has the right ... to create another state.''

The other big item on the negotiating plate is the makeup of the police. Hill wants them organized at the municipal level, rather that at Serbian republic level, meaning Albanians and Serbs would largely police themselves.

The Albanians, meanwhile, are proposing that Kosovo become an equal federation of Yugoslavia, with a referendum in three to five years on independence. That idea has been rejected by all sides, including Hill.

``The real issue has been to try to get them off this independence kick and on to something that is doable,'' he said.