Kosovar rebels’ hands less than lily-white

Its atrocities pate next to those of the Serbs, but KLA shows
little tolerance for ethnic rivals

New York Times Service

In trying to bring the Serbs to heel, NATO has unwittingly married a partner whose goals are as nationalistic as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It is the Kosovo Liberation Army, an armed group whose goals include not only independence but the expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo. A little more than a year ago it was dismissed by a senior U.S. diplomat, Robert Gelbard, as a 'terrorist group' and its insistence on armed resistance has deepened the crisis and propelled Kosovo into warfare.

In the catalogue of horrors that have befallen Yugoslavia, the Kosovo liberation Army is one of the lesser plagues. But the fact that this group has emerged to speak for Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, and the bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of Serbian targets on their behalf, reveals a great deal about the moral ambiguities confronting outsiders who wade into the Balkans to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing begun a decade ago by Mr. Milosevic.

The KLA began on the radically fringe of Kosovar Albanian politics, originally made up of diehard Marxist-Leninists (who were bankrolled in the old days by the Stalinist dictatorship next door in Albania) as well as by descendants of the fascist militias raised by the Italians in the Second World War.

It has no ideology beyond a drive to liberate Kosovo from Serbian rule, but its leaders have long championed the quixotic goal of a "Greater Albania" reaching into Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Though its atrocities pale next to the rampages of the Serbs, the KLA has shown little tolerance for its ethnic rivals, carrying out random kidnappings and executions and burning Serbian villages.

Even after Mr. Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, a moderate leadership under a self-styled president, Ibrahim Rugova, maintained a fragile peace. It did so by pretending to exercise autonomy, delivering some services and forbidding street protests, while the Serbian government pretended to have full control.

The KLA, whose very existence was in dispute among U.S. diplomats until the uprising last year, consisted of a few ragtag bands that walked around remote villages in motley uniforms and shot the odd police officer.

Then, a year ago, Mr. Milosevic set out to eradicate the armed bands, and his security forces surrounded Prekaz, a town whore Adam and Hamza Jashari, founding members of the KLA, were holed up with dozens of armed supporters.

Double-barrelled, 20-mm antiaircraft guns and .50-calibre machine guns pounded the stucco and brick - houses for three days. More than 50 people were killed.

The authorities in Belgrade naively assumed they had wiped out the resistance group. In fact, the raid triggered a provincewide rebellion. Most of Mr. Rugova's local officials, tired of international indifference to Serbian repression and abuse became village commanders. His party disintegrated.

Commanders seemed to sprout like mushrooms and nominal leaders had no control over forces acting in the name of the guerrilla group in the next village. The chaos was aggravated by a flood of weapons that poured over the border from northern Albania, where armouries had been looted after an economic meltdown in 1997.

Volunteers from, among the 600,000 ethnic Albanians who send home money from abroad left their menial jobs as dishwashers and construction workers in Germany and Switzerland and flocked to northern Albania. They were handed uniforms and weapons and sent over the mountains to join the fight.

There are now an estimated 30,000 automatic weapons in the hands of the force of several thousand fighters, plus antitank weapons and light mortars. But while some special fighting units have been set up, there remains no central command. The Kosovo Liberation Army is a state of mind, not a tight organization.

This is not simply rebellion by ethnic Albanians against Serbs, but by a new generation of Kosovar Albanians against intellectuals and urban elite in Pristina. Kosovo has highest birth rate in Europe and 70 per cent unemployment rate and the result is a vast pool disenchanted youth from which the KLA can recruit.

These fighters differ from their elders in that they do not speak Serbo-Croatian, have no loyalties to the Serbian state and have contact with Serbs only at checkpoints or jails.

Last winter, when international negotiators sought a peace agreement between Mr. Milosevic’s government and the Kosovar Albanians they turned to the Kosovo Liberation Army, hoping to blunt its drive for independence.

Eventually it signed on to the terms, which include a three-year period for Kosovo to be a NATO protectorate. But it has not given up its central goal of eventual independence-a goal Washington has steadfastly said it does not agree with.

And while the group accepted a phased plan to disarmed once NATO forces can be deployed to safeguard a truce, it is unlikely that after three years of preparation for war, many weapons would be turned over.

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