Kosovo rebels lie low, try to regroup in Albania

Guerrilla leader says remnants still fight, need better weapons

War In Yugoslavia


KUKES, Albania -- Like other refugees, they creep through craggy mountains and traffic-clogged roads seeking shelter from a stormy war. Yet whether wearing jeans and leather jackets, or clean camouflage uniforms and sturdy boots, there is no mistaking the veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The ethnic Albanian rebels may be nearly beaten, but they haven't disappeared.

The guerrilla force is hanging by a thread after the Serbs responded to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia with an onslaught against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

Along the dusty streets of this dilapidated city, KLA soldiers can be seen trying to recruit other young men to go into combat in Kosovo. Refugees tend to provide good candidates for the rebels. And there are plenty of angry young men who have been rousted from their homes by Serbian security forces.

Yet for now, the KLA appears to be lying very low, despite some claims that it is trying to maintain an ever-smaller base of operations inside Kosovo.

The long-expressed fear that NATO would act as the KLA's air force, emboldening the rebel band to engage in hit-and-run attacks against Serbian troops in Kosovo, has proved groundless.

Instead, NATO attacks were met with Serbian security forces engaging in a scorched earth policy of ethnic cleansing, sending scores of thousands of civilians across borders and crushing the aims of the rebel army.

The KLA has made numerous mistakes in its year-long battle with the Serbian troops, including trying to protect too much land and trying to fight like a conventional army. But its biggest mistake may have been its repeated calls for allied bombing.

Yesterday, one of the rebel army's founding leaders, Azem Syla, called on NATO to increase bombing attacks on Serbian tanks. He said only NATO ground troops or a speedy resupply of arms could save the KLA.

"If NATO keeps more seriously bombing the Serbs, and if the KLA would be supplied with arms, I think positively, we will win," said Syla, a member of the KLA's steering committee and a delegate to Kosovo peace talks convened in Rambouillet, France, in February.

Syla said the KLA had asked the U.S. and Western allies for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Asked if the KLA has gotten a response, he said, "We are still waiting."

The 47-year-old former chemistry professor was speaking with American journalists inside an Albanian army base at the edge of Kukes.

As the war over Kosovo has progressed, ties have apparently strengthened between the rebel

force and the Albanian army. The KLA, a shadowy force that once numbered about 30,000, has apparently started a southern retreat across the forbidding mountains that separate Yugoslavia from Albania.

Outside, Albanian women soldiers walked along the rocky hillside, wearing camouflage uniforms and platform shoes, and carrying purses.

Inside the base command post, the main operations room was lighted by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and equipped with a few telephones and a desk with an open drawer in which an AK-47 was stashed.

Uniformed Albanian officers practically genuflected when Syla appeared wearing a dark overcoat, blazer and tie. He then spoke to journalists in a lecture hall, sitting in front of a painting that celebrated early 20th century fighting between Serbian soldiers with guns and ethnic Albanians armed with swords, hatchets, knives and rocks.

In a soft voice, he said that Serbian forces "can defeat the KLA, but never demolish it."

The KLA's true believers are playing a long game in a bid to create an independent Kosovo, which is now a Serbian province.

The KLA goes back to the late 1970s in Switzerland, where rebels gathered in small cells and plotted against the Serbs. They became a real force and swung into action only after Serbian troops unloaded an opening salvo against the province's ethnic Albanian majority in March 1998.

Ethnic Albanians poured into Kosovo from Europe and the United States, received meager training, and then went out into the field. Armed with Kalashnikovs, and often wearing either sneakers or loafers, the recruits proved no match for Serbian tanks and security forces.

After a summer rout, the KLA claimed to have learned new tactics, fighting more like a hit-and-run rebel force. It also received a stock of anti-tank weapons, possibly from Pakistan. Then last October's cease-fire and the arrival of international monitors gave the KLA time to rebuild.

But now with the NATO bombing, the KLA has been forced to scale back operations in order to survive.

Syla said the KLA has pulled out of the provincial capital of Pristina, and been restricted to five areas near central Kosovo.

Syla said that Serbian tanks shelled one-quarter of Pristina on Monday. He claimed one of the neighborhoods hit was once home to international aid agencies, and said that 100,000 people in the city were refugees.

"The houses there are about destroyed," he said of the attacked neighborhood. "The rest burned out. Like in a war."

None of the claims could be independently confirmed, however. Although the KLA has scaled back operations, Syla said its units had destroyed at least 10 Serbian tanks since the bombing campaign began.

"The showdown is under way every day between the KLA and the Serbian forces," he said.

But the KLA is in retreat. Still, the rebels are counting on another opportunity to face the Serbs.

Syla said, "If the Kosovar question is not sorted out, there will always be trouble in the Balkan peninsula."

Pub Date: 04/01/99

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