KLA could break Kosovo deal

Rebels reject Western plan for disarmament and limited autonomy

War In Yugoslavia

May 10, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The rebel force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army is one of the keys to success of the peace plan that the West and Russia are pressing on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. And so far, the KLA isn't buying it.

The KLA has sounded determined to keep fighting to break free of Yugoslavia and to reject the kind of autonomy the major powers are offering.

"The proper and just solution is the independence of Kosovo, " KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said Friday. The plan's call for "demilitarization" of the KLA is unacceptable, rebels say.

Their position poses a potentially serious obstacle, even if Belgrade can be pressured into accepting a deal.

Since retreating into neighboring Albania in the face of overpowering Yugoslav force in late March, the KLA is rebuilding with recruits and contributions from throughout the ethnic Albanian diaspora in Europe, the United States and Australia.

The KLA, now with 20,000 hard-core fighters, has opened a supply line from Albania into Kosovo to provide ammunition for hit-and-run attacks against Serb forces, U.S. officials say.

The lightly armed rebels would be no match for the strong, NATO-led peacekeeping force envisioned by the United States and its allies.

But they are strong enough to play an important role in reaching a settlement and have the added moral authority of representing the victims of the Serbs' brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, analysts say.

"The KLA is still the only serious Albanian institution. Everything else has been atomized," says Morton Abramowitz, a retired high-ranking U.S. diplomat who advised the Kosovo delegation in peace talks early this year.

"The KLA fighters are the province's User.Event 7 was not expected here! new power brokers," writes journalist Chris Hedges in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

A power struggle could develop between the KLA leadership and more moderate Kosovar Albanian leaders such as Ibrahim Rugova, who has said he would accept broad autonomy within Serbia. Rugova has held talks with Milosevic since the NATO bombing started in March. Last week, he and his family were flown to Italy, where Rugova began talks with European leaders.

As Rugova began his tour, one of his top supporters was killed in Kosovo. The Serbs and the KLA have blamed each other in the slaying.

Roots of the KLA

Frequently underestimated by Western analysts, the KLA grew out of an underground resistance movement in the early 1990s after Milosevic, in an appeal to Serb nationalism, stripped away the autonomy conferred on the Serbian province in 1974 by Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980.

With a leadership drawn from a number of clans, the KLA has roots in communism and fascism, but displays no clear ideology.

Last year, its hit-and-run attacks against Yugoslav military police turned into a territorial grab, surprising U.S. officials with its speed. A strong Serbian military response was halted temporarily by a deal brokered by American envoy Richard C. Holbrooke.

When fighting resumed late last winter, Milosevic moved in the Yugoslav army and special police, pushing out not only the KLA but hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian women, children and elderly civilians in what refugees have described as a rampage of terror, murder and rape.

Changing U.S. policy

U.S. officials have at various times disparaged and courted the KLA. Early last year, U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard, one of several emissaries who have wrestled with Kosovo, denounced the rebel organization as "a terrorist group."

When the United States, Britain and France tried to broker a peace agreement at Rambouillet, outside Paris, they had no choice but to deal with the KLA in addition to sidelined political leaders such as Rugova.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright enlisted former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, one of the prominent Americans who took an early interest in Kosovo, to try to win over the rebels.

In the early days of NATO airstrikes, one of the KLA's key political leaders, Hashim Thaci, was in regular contact with the State Department's chief spokesman, James P. Rubin, giving accounts of Serb atrocities in Kosovo.

During the past two weeks, NATO and U.S. spokesmen have spoken approvingly about the KLA's survival, which has helped maintain pressure on Serbian forces in Kosovo. Some NATO airstrikes have been aimed at Serbian positions along the Kosovo-Albanian border, offering at least indirect help to KLA guerrillas conducting cross-border attacks.

At a news briefing yesterday, NATO spokesman Walter Jertz said NATO airstrikes had forced the Serbs to reduce operations in parts of Kosovo and that the KLA is getting a freer hand to protect internally displaced Kosovars.

"It appears that our operations against Serbian military and special police in Kosovo may be allowing the UCK [KLA] to provide some protection for their kinfolk," Jertz said. But he insisted "we are not supporting the UCK either directly or indirectly."

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