KOSTAJNICA, Croatia -- Trails of smoke wisped into the air above burned-out buildings. A bloodstained doorway marked the place where one person died. The bullet-pocked homes were abandoned.
This scene of devastation was the latest handiwork of the man they call the "Rambo from Knin," although he prefers to be called "Captain Dragan." Lean, iron-eyed, 36 years old and prematurely gray, he has a scarred face. It is the face of a historic conflict.
A boastful soldier of fortune, thought to have belonged to the French Foreign Legion, he has trained the 12,000-strong rebel Serb army inside Croatia that devastated the republic's defenses as it captured towns and villages in a wide area southeast of Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
His successes appear to have been instrumental in pressing the ambition of Serbian hard-liners -- a greater Serbia that would annex this enclave of neighboring Croatia inhabited by more than a half-million Serbs.
To hear Captain Dragan talk about it, the hope for an armed uprising among Serbs in Croatia was in the planning months before Croatia ignited old rivalries and anxieties by declaring that it would secede from Yugoslavia on June 25.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman complained at the height of the Serbian insur gency last week that his republic did "not have the weapons to fully mobilize our forces." He might as accurately have said that Croatia's poorly organized forces are practically helpless in the face of Captain Dragan's well-trained forces.
Captain Dragan doesn't like to talk about himself. His real name is said to be Daniel Pavic. Though born in Serbia, he is said to have grown up in Australia before becoming a soldier of fortune fighting in Africa, Argentina and the Falklands. He speaks excellent English with an Australian accent.
He does give interviews as he moves around the 15 camps he has set up, wearing full camouflage battle gear and Ray Ban sunglasses, carrying an Uzi submachine gun. He likes to pose for pictures with the skull of a Croat and the black swagger stick that he holds beneath his cocked arm like a British colonial policeman.
The setting is always chosen to reinforce the impression of his control and organization: Behind his aides, Yugoslav army topographic maps mark the victories of his men, Serbs who want to carve out the Krajina area of Croatia where they live, first to make it independent of Croatia and then to join Serbia. The heart of Krajina is the town of Knin -- hence the nickname "Rambo from Knin." His men are known as the "Kninja."
In an interview last week in a hill camp on the edge of Krajina, he boasted about his strategy, the Croatian resistance and how he has trained his men. He peppered his interview with claims of high Croat death tolls and claims that he has not lost a single man. These are unprovable contentions. But he had good reason to brag: In one week, his forces routed the Croats from the two towns of Glina and Kostajnica.
He said his involvement with the Krajina Serbs began with a phone call late last year from "a very good friend" who is a top Krajina official. This was months before Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia.
A visit to Krajina followed, together with an agreement -- and some say a lot of money -- to train insurgent Serbs in Croatia. Captain Dragan is reluctant to talk about the extent of backing he has received from the government of Serbia, but he is surrounded by expensive arms and military equipment.
He is being helped, he said, by "some people from the Serbian government . . . a group of real Serbs, patriots whom I bow my head to. Naturally, in this situation I don't want to mention their names, but the time will come and people will know who saved the Serbian Krajina." He says that Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is the guiding light of the Serbian rebellion.
Mr. Milosevic's aims for Serbia -- Yugoslavia's largest and dominant republic in the disintegrating jigsaw of ethnic groups known as Yugoslavia for the past 73 years -- coincide nicely with those of the Krajina Serbs. Mr. Milosevic says that Croatia, Serbia's historic enemy, should be allowed to implement the independence declaration it made along with Slovenia June 25, but that it should first relinquish approximately one-third of its territory inhabited by Serbs.
Captain Dragan's forces have in several instances been helped by the Yugoslav army, whose officer corps is dominated by Serbs.
Ten days ago, when Captain Dragan's men were initially repulsed in their attack on Kostajnica, Yugoslav air force jets attacked, forcing the Croats to abandon the town temporarily. Captain Dragan admitted some help from the army and intimated that his units would become part of the army once Krajina became part of Serbia.
Until Captain Dragan arrived, attempts by the Krajina Serbs to set up armed units were floundering in internecine rivalries and quarrels.
Organization and discipline are his watchwords.
"In my whole military career I haven't seen so many normal, simple, honest people learning so quickly and advancing so quickly. If you had seen those young men when they had just arrived, you would say you could make nothing of them. But after two weeks, something did come into being. After a month, they were specialists who could fight anywhere in the world, on any battlefield."
For the Croatians, the Rambo from Knin was a nightmare come true. His opinion of the Croatians is typically disdainful: "bad organization and a catastrophic global strategy."